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Murrells Inlet: After allowing Marsh Walk vendors, law keeps customers at arm's length

By Jackie R. Broach
Coastal Observer

Georgetown County zoning officials will wait another month before asking County Council to give final approval to an ordinance that allows more vendors along the Murrells Inlet Marsh Walk.

County Council invoked the pending ordinance doctrine when it gave first reading in May, allowing vendors to start selling, but the matter was deferred after second reading in June.

“It’s such new territory that we wanted to see how it’s working for a while,” said Boyd Johnson, county planning director. “If it doesn’t work, all it takes is for council to make a motion to table it and the whole thing goes away.”

If serious problems arise and persist, Johnson said he won’t hesitate to make that recommendation, but so far business owners and vendors have been cooperative when issues have come up.

“There have been some difficulties just getting it going exactly the way we want,” Johnson said. “I think we’ve got it now, but it started out rather rough.”

Vendors are banned from selling on the Marsh Walk, but they hoped to be able to set up close enough for customers to reach across the railing. However, a 3-foot setback in the ordinance prevents that and keeps vendors from being as successful as they might otherwise be, said Al Hitchcock, an owner of Drunken Jack’s restaurant.

“In retail, people aren’t going to buy it if they can’t touch it,” Hitchcock said.

That hinders vendors, such as Booty Shelley of Booty’s Outdoors, who sells T-shirts on the Drunken Jack’s property, he added.

“The artist who comes down and sets up, he’s OK. They see his work and they’ll step back and come around for a closer look,” Hitchcock said.

The setback “defeats the whole purpose” of having a special overlay zone for the Marsh Walk, said David Owens, who owns Capt. Dave’s Dockside and two other restaurants along the Marsh Walk.

“I agree they don’t need to be on the Marsh Walk itself, but I disagree with the setback as do all the vendors,” he said.

Hitchcock expects the county will eventually relax the setback.

“I believe once they realize we’re not down here trying to create a flea market, but to create an economic opportunity, it will get better,” he said.

Benefits from having vendors on the Marsh Walk are already being seen with visitors staying longer and visiting local shops after they get a glimpse of what they have to offer at vendor booths, Hitchcock added. Those were among the specific goals of business owners, including Hitchcock and Owens, who pushed a special overlay zone.

And visitors seem to enjoy having another attraction and an opportunity for shopping on the Marsh Walk, Owens said.

Council Member Jerry Oakley said part of the reason for deferring final reading of the ordinance was so that amendments could be made at third reading, but he doesn’t see a change to the setback being included.

The setback was created in 1998 to go along with an agreement with property owners who gave the county easements for construction of the Marsh Walk. Under the easements, commercial activity is prohibited on the Marsh Walk.

The county attorney deemed that if customers are on the Marsh Walk when transactions take place, even if vendors aren’t, it would violate the agreement, according to Oakley.

An amendment might be passed to eliminate the requirement that vendors take down their booths every night.

Owens said he would like to see the county issue businesses more permits for vendors, but that wouldn’t mean more vendors setting up.

His properties are allowed a total of six vendors, but they don’t set up every night. He has a waiting list of vendors who want to sell on his property and would like to have more than six permits so that if a vendor doesn’t show up, he can let someone else set up.

Technically, as the ordinance is written, it doesn’t say he can’t. It limits vendors, not permits, but Oakley said that will change at third reading.

“We probably need to make it absolutely clear what the intent was,” he said.

Additionally, permits are not transferable, Johnson said.

Owens is considering requiring vendors to commit to sell on his property at least five nights a week before they get a permit next year.

Johnson has heard concerns about vendors being permitted and then not showing up. If that becomes a problem, he said, businesses can have the permit voided and get a permit for another vendor. But he notes that once a permit is voided, that vendor can’t set up again until another permit is issued.

Johnson said he hasn’t been to the Marsh Walk on a Saturday this season, but that’s on his to-do list before the special overlay zone goes up for final approval.

“I want to go take a good look and see what it’s like visually on the busiest night,” he said. “We don’t want it to look like a flea market.”

The business owners say they don’t want that either and will help make sure it doesn’t become a problem.

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