City’s tour boat crackdown leads to tickets at county landing – Coastal Observer


City’s tour boat crackdown leads to tickets at county landing

The ordinance currently limits the use of landings to the loading and unloading of boats.

A complaint by the city of Georgetown against a tour boat operator has sent ripples across public boat landings in the county. Deputies have started ticketing commercial fishing guides at the Murrells Inlet boat landing, and commercial activities at other landings could also face citations, Sheriff Carter Weaver said.

“You had charter boats that were occupying the parking spaces, taking up all the dock spaces so others can’t use the dock,” he said.

A county ordinance adopted over 30 years ago prohibits loading or unloading cargo or passengers “for hire or compensation” and the sale of goods at the boat landings. The ordinance was adopted after a popular tour boat started operating from Hagley Landing.

A state Supreme Court decision that upheld the county ordinance was cited last month in Circuit Court when the city of Georgetown obtained a temporary injunction against Rover Tours from picking up passengers for its 40-seat pontoon boat at East Bay Park.

“This is a huge safety concern and liability for the city,” Elise Crosby, the city attorney, said at a hearing.

Rover Tours and its owner, Tamela Walter, don’t have a city business license and aren’t registered with the Secretary of State. The city first received parking complaints about the tour in April and began issuing tickets in May. The tour boat was cited 35 times, with each ticket carrying a fine of up to $1,072.

“It may be a cost of doing business. I don’t know,” Crosby said.

She cited the 1992 Supreme Court decision in a suit by Capt. Sandy’s Tours against Georgetown County as proof that the city is likely to prevail in obtaining a cease and desist order against Walters.

Sandy Vermont got a similar order from the county in 1991 when he started picking up passengers for river tours from Hagley Landing. The county claimed the operation violated the residential zoning.

Vermont appealed to the county Board of Zoning Appeals and then to the courts.

At the same time the county adopted an ordinance to regulate boat landings. Due to the growth in the permanent and seasonal population,  it reads, “the use of the public boat landings by the public located in the county has increased substantially in recent years. This increase in use has resulted in overcrowding, increased littering, inadequate parking facilities available at the boat landings, interference with the use of the boat landings for the purpose for which they are intended, and an increase in the hazards of using the boat landings.”

The ordinance limits the use of the landings to the launching and landing of watercraft and for parking the vehicles used to transport them.

Vermont sought to block the county from enforcing the ordinance. He argued that the state constitution makes navigable waters “public highways free to the citizens” and that a landing is “a road to a river” that doesn’t differ from any other road.

The Supreme Court ruled in the county’s favor, saying the county is able to regulate landings the same way it regulates roads. “We find the ordinance is reasonable and therefore valid,” wrote then-Associate Justice Jean Toal.

Vermont, who started operating boat tours in 1985, moved his operation to Georgetown. He said that aside from hurting his business, the ordinance meant that people who didn’t own their own boat couldn’t get out on the water.

“This county has got to realize that tourism is the lifeblood of Georgetown County,” he said.

Vermont died in 2016.

Angela Lane, attorney for Rover Tours, raised the same argument that Vermont did: that there are other commercial uses at the landings that aren’t being addressed by local ordinances. Particularly, fishing charters, she said.

“It appears at least in practice that this happens,” Lane said. “That’s been OK.”

Judge Alec Hyman said he was once part of a boat tour in Conway.

“I grew up on the Waccamaw River. My parents still live there and my grandparents still live there. I proposed to my wife on the Waccamaw River,” he said.

But he told Walter he was concerned about her lack of a business license and an agreement with the city.

Lane said afterward that Walter is working to correct that.

“She wants to get back in business as soon as she can. It’s her livelihood,” Lane said.

It was the Rover Tours case that prompted the sheriff’s office to start writing tickets, Weaver said. But he also has concerns about the ordinance.

“My professional opinion, as the sheriff, is that the ordinance is too broad,” he said. “There needs to be some discussion.”

If the ordinance is applied equally, it could prohibit dealers from launching at public landings to test boats. It could bar the host of a television program from using the landings for his fishing reports. It could also impact two of the county’s signature sporting events.

“The Bassmaster Classic that the county sponsors, the college fishing tournament,” Weaver said. “They’re in violation as well.”

He believes that the sponsor logos on the boats and trailers fall on the wrong side of the commercial ban.

“If the ordinance does not change, it’s my intent to charge these commercial entities whether the county is sponsoring them or not,” Weaver said.

Rick Ahlert and his wife, Marie, ran a tour boat on the Waccamaw River for three years before setting out on a year-long journey through the Great Loop of inland waterways. They picked up passengers at Hagley and never had an issue.

“We did it because friends of ours were sitting on the boat at sunset and said, ‘you can make money doing this,’” Ahlert said.

They were wrong about the financial side, but Ahlert said it became a hobby.

Like the owner of Rover Tours, he instructed his passengers not to block parking for boat trailers at the landing.

“It would be a shame to see that disappear,” Ahlert said of the Rover. “That’s a service for visitors coming into town.”

Another tour operator, who asked not to be named to avoid drawing attention to his boat, said tours bring business to the city and county. They also give visitors a perspective on the area that can’t be obtained any other way.

“It’s really a dilemma and an unfortunate situation,” he said. “If they’re going to go by the book, they’re going to shut down a lot of commercial operations.”

That’s why Weaver thinks the ordinance needs to be changed.

“It’s too broad. It’s affecting too many people who are using the resource,” he said.

It’s also hard to enforce, since you can’t always tell what boats are part of a commercial venture, Weaver added.  But if the county allows commercial uses to continue and someone is injured, “the county’s going to be on the hook,” he said.

Weaver plans to recommend that the county adopt a business license. That would make it clear who falls within the commercial category and who is responsible if someone is injured.

“A business license would cure it,” he said. “It puts the onus on the person who has paid the business license.”



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