South Carolina Environmental Law Project

Lawyers for the Wild Side of South Carolina

SC beach access and boat launch closures create enforcement challenges
March 31st, 2020

By Chloe Johnson, Post & Courier

South Carolina beach towns awoke Tuesday under orders to close their beach paths, while kayakers and fishermen were denied access to boat ramps as the reality of outdoor life under new coronavirus rules took hold.

A state order to close public access points to the water, including on the beach, left many communities struggling to figure out enforcement — and fans of recreation were equally frustrated to lose an outlet for their energy in a stressful time.

Access to the state’s freshwater lakes was added to no-use list late Tuesday, including for one of the state’s most popular outdoor sports: fishing.

“We are sorry about this,” said Ross Self, the state wildlife department’s chief of freshwater fisheries. “We hope the situation moderates soon so that we can reopen these lakes for public fishing again.”

The state lakes that have been closed do not include lakes Marion, Moultrie and Murray. Anglers can fish if they find a private access to those waters, and can also anchor in streams and rivers if they find a private access.

For more than a week, beaches have been at the center of developing public health edicts to stop the spread of a novel strain of coronavirus. In an attempt to stop beach revelers and boaters from gathering closely, Gov. Henry McMaster shuttered all public beach paths, boat launches and docks Monday. Now, only those with private beach walkovers and backyard docks will be able to reach these public trust resources.

Even those who live just one street inland in coastal locales like Folly Beach will need permission from a shorefront neighbor to cross their property and set foot on the sand.

“If you’re fortunate enough to have property that has direct access to our waterways and beaches, you’re advantaged,” said Amy Armstrong, an environmental lawyer who has litigated several cases related to the public’s beach access. “You’re in a separate class.”

Armstrong said the order appeared well within legal emergency powers but she was disappointed that a wave to reconnect with nature as many businesses had closed down was being thwarted.

For beach towns that have attempted to stem the flow of visitors in recent days, the order was simply the latest restriction: Folly, Sullivan’s Island, Isle of Palms, Kiawah Island and Edisto Beach have already instituted checkpoints to stop non-residents from entering and limits on new rentals.

After the state’s attorney general opined that towns were not actually in their legal rights to institute those rules, Folly and Edisto Beach briefly lifted their checkpoints, only to reimpose them after a crush of visitors arrived. When the stoppage was lifted on Saturday, Folly resident Anne Lauren Jolly said she had to wade through “a sea of college” to find a place on the beach.

Folly Mayor Tim Goodwin said officials there were waiting to see how the governor’s new order plays out. Folly has roped off its beach paths, but “I don’t have enough officers to man 52 public accesses,” Goodwin said. Leaders of other beach towns in Charleston county expressed similar challenges with staff.

On a gray Tuesday afternoon, few people were walking the beach on Folly. More residents were strolling with their dogs or families along back streets.

A handful of people poked around Bert’s Market, the island’s tiny, storied 24-hour grocer, where a sandwich maker wore a medical mask and the chalkboard outside indicated a new delivery service. A sheath of cardboard pasted on a door at the entrance asked that no more than 10 people enter the store at a time.

Some islanders, like Doc Gilder, doubted the beach access rule would be closely followed.

Gilder was on a solo beach walk near 12th Street East. He’s one of the lucky few on the island who live beachfront, but if someone is spotted climbing through a blocked-off public path, he said, “No one is going to say, ‘Oh, you can’t go through the rope.’ ”

The order impacts boat ramps, as well, a particular problem after a S.C. Department of Natural Resources flight spotted dense gatherings of boaters off Capers Island and many other islands and sandbars along the coast, spokesman Robert McCullough said. Commercial fishermen with licenses are still allowed to launch.

“People are going to remote spots to get away or either hang with their crowd,” said Lt. Michael Thomas, who polices the southern half of the coast for DNR. “Places that are not normally popular at all pre-virus are starting to see some activity.”

Charleston police are also checking in on the city’s four main landings a few times every hour, said Capt. Dustin Thompson. So far, things had been relatively quiet, with stormy weather predicted for Tuesday evening.

“I anticipate there being a major issue on Saturday and Sunday, especially if the weather’s nice,” Thompson said.

Online, lovers of the outdoors cried foul on the move, starting a petition to reopen boat ramps that garnered more than 4,000 signatures by 5 p.m. Tuesday. One member of a kayaking group on Facebook suggested paddlers find an unoccupied stretch of stream bank and simply slip in.

Some boaters at the Charleston County landing at the Wappoo Cut were able to sneak into the water, while others were taking their boats out.

Erven Roper, owner of Redfish Charters, was one of those taking their boats out of the water.

“Just trying to cut expenses,” he said.

Schuyler Kropf contributed to this report.

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