Ordinance Unfairly Targets Downtown Merchants

(Ed. Note – The author is a local attorney and former staff member for Gov. Carroll Campbell. This op-ed also appears today in the Myrtle Beach Herald.)

By Reese Boyd

On Tuesday, Aug. 14, Myrtle Beach City Council voted 5-2 to approve new zoning regulations commonly referred to as an “overlay” for Myrtle Beach’s downtown Ocean Boulevard district. The overlay proscribes various categories of merchandise, which after Dec. 31 of this year can no longer be sold in the areas affected by the Overlay.

In so doing, at the stroke of a pen, city council rendered various businesses, perhaps dozens of businesses in the Ocean Boulevard district, either financially devastated, or (as of little more than four months from now) illegal altogether.

It’s worth noting that the same city council, at the very same meeting, also celebrated the Constitution. Your city council has designated Sept. 17-23 as “Constitution Week” in the City of Myrtle Beach, apparently without any ironic intent.

In the interest of full disclosure, I represent some of the downtown merchants whose lives have been up-ended by the passage of the overlay ordinance. I spoke on their behalf at council. But my feelings about council’s actions in this matter would be the same, whether I represented these merchants or not.

The facts are rather startling: most of the downtown merchants only heard about the looming overlay a mere three days before council’s vote – and not from the city, but from various news reports published over the weekend. There was no debate. No give and take. Just a couple of days to get ready for a vote.

At the Aug. 14 council meeting, there was a brief comment period where public comments were limited to a mere three minutes. And that process seemed more of a formality, really, one that belied the underlying reality that council had already made up its mind, and wasn’t really interested in what the public had to say. Some city council members were seen to be checking their phones during the public comments.

And make no mistake, government may move at its own pace in other quarters, but during public comment, three minutes means three minutes. Not three minutes and three seconds, but three minutes. Speakers were cut off mid-sentence, mid-thought, even mid-word. “Sorry” the Mayor would politely say, “your time is up!”

Many were concerned that in approving a “second” (final) reading of the overlay ordinance Aug. 14, council relied on a “first” reading of the ordinance that occurred way back on May g, 2017, more than 15 months ago. This is especially troubling given that the ordinance considered in May 2017 was very much different from what was approved by council on Aug. 14. Indeed, of the 186 lines of text in the final adopted ordinance, 113 of those lines were brand new and publicly discussed for the first time at “second” reading, the same day the ordinance was approved.

One comment that kept being repeated at the Aug. 14 meeting with some urgency was the “family friendly” imperative, and whether these businesses along Ocean Boulevard are “good for Myrtle Beach?” But what of the many dozens of families whose lives and livelihoods depend on the operations of those businesses? How is the overlay “family friendly” for those whose livelihoods and incomes have now been red-lined out of existence a few short months from now?

In their defense, I’ve heard many city council members mumble, as if it is their personal burden, that they are “tired of being ashamed” of Ocean Boulevard. I certainly feel for them. But one may reasonably ask if they are also tired of being ashamed of Broadway at the Beach, or of Market Common, where many of the same items they banned from the stream of commerce on Ocean Boulevard can readily be purchased from many different stores?

Just outside of the Hard Rock Cafe in Broadway at the Beach, you’ll find a marker that notes the development is dedicated to “the families of the world.” Walk over the bridge a few short steps from that marker, and just across the water you’ll find a candy store. There (in a candy store, no less) visitors can choose from more than a handful of products that cannot be described in detail on these pages.

Ocean Boulevard Merchants are rightly asking how these offerings are good for Myrtle Beach? Is council concerned about that question?

At the city council meeting, the Myrtle Beach Police Department produced various “exhibits,” all items purchased in the downtown district. One of these was a T-shirt imprinted with the logo, “It’s only Illegal if you Get Caught.” The T-shirt was held up as Exhibit I for the proposition that Western Civilization is heading over the precipice and it is the City of Myrtle Beach that is leading the charge.

But during a visit to Broadway at the Beach this past weekend, I found a T-Shirt offered for sale that gives the reader precise instructions (along with examples) of the ten specific instances when use of the “F word” is appropriate in conversation. This would have made for a far more interesting exhibit, but city council doesn’t seem to be interested in discussing whether those items are “good for Myrtle Beach.”

The Ocean Boulevard Merchants will be the first to tell you that there are several positive provisions in the overlay ordinance. But they object that they have been singled out to bear the burden of a “feel good” measure that is little more than a band-aid that will ultimately do little, if anything, to improve the visitor climate along Ocean Boulevard.

The ordinance received little, if any, meaningful debate. It is not part of a comprehensive zoning plan. It is not the result of any independent study. It is not the product of reasonable consensus or compromise, nor even of any meaningful discussion. But it does, apparently, allow a few of our council members to “check the box” that they have “done they’re part” to make Myrtle Beach “family friendly” again.

That the ordinance doesn’t address alcohol sales, that it singles out a few merchants in a small area of the city, to the exclusion of all others, or several other glaring inequities, all seem irrelevant to city council.

In the recent municipal election it was generally understood that voters, sick and tired of city politics-as-usual, were pulling the lever for “change.” One wonders if this is the change they were looking for.

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