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Murrells Inlet: County creating film ordinance in wake of reality show

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

Zoning ordinances won’t keep film crews out of residential neighborhoods after a ruling last week by the Georgetown County Zoning Board of Appeals.

Instead, Georgetown County Council is attempting to craft an ordinance that will address problems that arose in Murrells Inlet during the taping of a reality television show last month. Council approved first reading of the proposed ordinance by title only Tuesday. A public hearing and second reading could follow as soon as Sept. 24.

Zoning board members denied an appeal by Murrells Inlet resident Warren Stedman last Thursday of the zoning administrator’s decision to issue permits to 495 Productions for a temporary office and storage trailers that allowed a reality television show to be filmed in his neighborhood.

Stedman said the permits allowed a commercial venture into a residential neighborhood, and the filming caused his family “a great deal of anguish and pain.”

A film crew and cast members spent four weeks at King’s Krest, a house next to Oliver’s Lodge on the inlet, for a show tentatively called “Party Down South” depicting the antics of a group of young adults living together at Murrells Inlet and on Lawshe Plantation near Andrews.

Stedman, who lives within 60 yards of King’s Krest, filed a noise ordinance charge against a producer of the show and said he had a number of confrontations with cast members over late night disturbances.

Boyd Johnson, county planning director, said the show’s producers applied for permits for a contractor’s office and storage trailers. County regulations permit the location of these temporary facilities for one year within 400 feet of the property line.

The case came down to the definition of a “contractor.”

Stedman’s lawyer, Hamlin O’Kelley, said issuing the permit was an error because of a contractor’s office and storage units are intended for construction, renovation or remodeling. “These permits turned what was a rental house into a production facility, which I don’t think is permitted,” he said. “The county’s ordinance says no land or structure can be used for purposes unless specifically allowed. Filming a reality television show is not permitted in a residential district.”

Stedman said county officials gave “a wink and a nod” to the show’s producers when they claimed to be contractors.

Johnson said the term contractor is not defined in the county ordinances and is not limited to construction. The zoning administrator has authority to issue permits if conditions are met, he said.

Georgetown County attorney Wesley Bryant said the word contractor is a “term of art” and does not limit the use of the office to construction. Bryant cautioned zoning appeals board members to refrain from creating a new zoning definition in their ruling. Their scope, he said, was narrow: Was the permit issued legally?

Johnson argued that the permits were OK because filming is not prohibited by the ordinance, and the property was being used by a “family”, even if it was a collection of unrelated reality show cast members. They were living together as a single household unit, Johnson said. “At beach houses,” he added, “that occurs a lot. This particular house had no more than nine people occupying it. Any other interpretation will create enormous problems for other beach houses.”

Because film making is not contemplated in the county zoning ordinance, he said the use of the house was residential with filming as an “incidental activity.” He said Georgetown County promotes filming as an economic activity with 311 properties listed as good places to film movie scenes — 145 of those are in residential districts.

Johnson said the show’s producers promised not to block any streets or close the Marsh Walk on the inlet. “None of those issues came up,” he said. “This particular type of activity did not create any significant congestion, like Bike Week. Obviously, it was a disturbance to people in the immediate area. The problems were more behavioral: noise and vulgar language. We contend that’s not the purpose of zoning. Law enforcement kicks in in those types of situations.”

Johnson said a zoning ordinance uses too broad a brush to regulate filming. “It might eliminate things you want,” he said. “What if Belin Church wanted to broadcast Sunday services? We issue permits for things we have rules on: contractor’s offices and mobile units. We had no other rules to go by. I don’t see how you could possibly outlaw filming in a residential district.”

Issuing the permit violated the intent of the zoning ordinance, O’Kelley told the board. “No land or structure shall be used or occupied unless specifically allowed,” he said, “no mechanical equipment installed except for domestic purposes. What’s the intent of the zoning statute? To prevent commercial use in single-family residential. The permits turned what is a rental house into a production facility, which I don’t think is allowed under your zoning.

“Their willingness to foster an economic boom unfortunately caused some other provisions of the zoning ordinance to be trampled on. It’s clear the county knew it was a non-residential, commercial use. Temporary does not mean that a commercial use is allowed. Filming is allowed, but you can’t use residential property for a storage area.”

O’Kelley asked board members to overturn the production company’s permits. “They are good until January,” he said. “They could come back tomorrow.”

Leon Rice, whose family owns Marshmere, the house next door to the film site, said the storage trailers enabled the show’s filming, and producers took advantage. A crew of 35 people were in the house during filming. A hot tub and fire pit were installed in the yard. Flood lights were mounted on the roof and the dock, and a string of lights was put up around the yard.

“We have some small grandchildren who visit,” Rice said. “We asked if they could stop filming by 10 p.m. They said filming was 24/7, when our actors need to act. And act out they did. All the floodlights stayed on day and night for the entire month. The sheriff was called several times to quiet them down, and our peace and quiet on the waterfront was somewhat compromised. They had a different sleeping pattern than we did.”

Rice said county permits are important for residents’ protection. A construction trailer in a subdivision closes at 5 p.m, he said. “They turned this property into a Hollywood studio. It’s no way an incidental use. It was primary use.”

Rice said revoking the production company’s permits would do one thing for the neighbors, “let the zoning department know it made a mistake and send a message to the friendly film company to find another place for its trailers and perhaps spare us next time.”

Gary Weinreich, who lives less than a mile from King’s Krest, accused the show’s producers of supplying incomplete and inaccurate information on their permit application. “The applicant indicated he was seeking temporary use as a construction contractor and answered ‘not applicable’ to all questions,” Weinreich said. “There is no possible justification to approve this application on the basis of the information submitted.”

Weinreich said producers did not indicate there would be food vendors at the house and evaded the question about the number of people at the house.

Weinreich said the application was submitted at 5:01 p.m. and approved at 8:43 a.m. the next day. “Processing time was completely inadequate for a due-diligence review,” he said. “This was an error of planning and zoning departments and the county officials who provide direction of the department. If the applicant falsified the application claiming construction, that permit should never have been issued.”

Weinreich claimed the show’s producers were issued “a verbal permit” to proceed. “Verbal permits,” he said, “are unprecedented. They are always written documents containing conditions. Verbal permits grant limitless authority to the applicant.”

The following day Jackie Broach, the county’s public information officer, said the planning department never issues verbal permits, and the claim must have come from a misunderstanding of a conversation in which Johnson said no permit was needed for filming.

After testimony was complete, board member David Greene moved to remand the issue to Georgetown County Council. The board’s attorney, Charles Smith, said the council had no authority to make a decision in this case. “This board is their only relief,” he said of the plaintiffs.

The board voted 4-1 to deny the appeal with Gene Gilfillin cast the lone vote in favor of the appeal.

Any further appeal would go to Circuit Court. Stedman said this week that is still an option.

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