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Litchfield Beaches: Association still wary of license plate cameras

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

The way John Thomas sees it, a private initiative to install license plate cameras at the entrances to Litchfield Beach and North Litchfield is akin to starting a neighborhood watch. But some members of the area property owners association think the cameras may be more like nosey neighbors.

The association agreed this week to poll members before moving forward with a plan to install the cameras in cooperation with the Georgetown County Sheriff’s Office. It will be one of Thomas’ last duties as the association president. He is unopposed in November for the County Council District 1 seat.

“I think it would be a win-win situation,” Thomas said. He got a price of $57,000 to install cameras on three roads. They would record license numbers and send the data to the State Law Enforcement Division, which would compare the numbers to those in a national crime database. The town of Pawleys Island installed a camera system last year and officials say it has been helpful in deterring and solving crimes. That’s in spite of a series of thefts from unlocked cars and the theft of a car last week. Police Chief Mike Fanning said camera data provided a lead on suspects.

The Litchfield Beaches Property Owners Association board discussed cameras earlier this year after a string of house break-ins, but didn’t have complete information for the annual membership meeting in May. Thomas presented it to the board this week and hoped to get agreement.

“I think it’s a reasonable thing to do,” Jay Preslar, a Litchfield Beach resident, said. “The sheriff’s office certainly doesn’t have it in its budget.”

The presence of the cameras would serve as a deterrent, he said.

“I don’t really have a problem with it,” said Steve Harris, a Waccamaw Trace resident. “There are probably people who do.” But he questioned whether the association has the authority to install the cameras. If there is a problem, Harris said, people will come to the association rather than the sheriff’s office.

The association would buy the equipment and pay monthly costs for the link to SLED, but only law enforcement agencies can operate the system and get access to the data, Thomas said.

“What if you decide to run for office and they say, What were you doing coming in and out at 5 in the morning?” Barbara Neeley, a Litchfield Beach resident, asked.

If a license number isn’t subject of a warrant or other notification in the law enforcement database, it won’t trigger an alert to the sheriff’s office, Preslar said. People with privacy concerns have more to fear from their cellphones, he added.

“This is a huge move if the board decides to do it,” Denny Michaelis, a North Litchfield owner, said. He wanted more data about how effective the cameras have been at Pawleys Island.

Richard Heusel, a North Litchfield resident, said the cameras raise other issues. “Whose job is it to make it safer? Is it law enforcement’s job or the association’s job?” he said.

“We’re helping them do the job,” Preslar said.

Ladd Dezendof, a North Litchfield resident who will take over as president in January, suggested polling members when renewal notices go out in December. “We might be surprised one way or the other,” he said.

Preslar proposed including the board’s endorsement with the poll. “I’m not ready to say yea or nay,” Heusel said.

“Me either,” Harris said. “I don’t want to contribute to 1984.”

Thomas was disappointed. “I don’t understand what your real concern is,” he said. But he got a round of applause for his efforts on this and other issues. “I think the discussion we’re having is very healthy,” Harris said.

Cameras provide a lead in Pawleys Island break-ins

Keys were among the items reported stolen from 20 unlocked cars on the south end of Pawleys Island last week. One of those keys was taken along with the car, a red 2013 Toyota Corolla with $10,000 worth of jewelry in the trunk, according to Police Chief Mike Fanning.

The valet key to the Toyota was in the center console, he said.

The break-ins occurred last Wednesday night or Thursday morning. Two surfboards were also stolen from under one house, but most of the missing items were minor, Fanning said. “We recovered some of the property, including 15 sets of keys,” he said.

He thinks there were probably more cars entered, but people didn’t report the break-ins.

“I don’t know if it would be a record. It was unusual for this time of year,” Fanning said.

The license plate cameras the town installed on the causeways leading from the island showed the stolen car left at 3:30 a.m. They also provided a lead to another vehicle on the island at the time and Fanning said police were following up on that.

This month, Town Council agreed to install a video surveillance camera at First Street as a test of the technology. Council favored a system that would focus on the beach access rather than the nearby streets.

If cameras had been installed at the Hazard and Pritchard street accesses, they would have likely provided information about the number of people involved in last week’s break-ins, Fanning said.

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