After months of wrangling and several unsuccessful efforts, the Surfside Beach Town Council voted this week to keep the first three feet of the right-of-way adjacent to public streets clear.
The ordinance in various forms has been discussed since earlier this year but failed to get a majority approval until Tuesday. It passed on a 4-3 vote.
The new policy says because of safety issues, the first three feet of a public right-of-way has to be clear of any obstructions with the exceptions of those placed by town, state or federal officials. These exceptions can include mailboxes and the three square feet around them, street trees, legal signs, sidewalks, utility poles and legal street parking.
Where the right-of-way extends beyond three feet, a property owner can apply for an encroachment permit for “soft” landscaping that does not exceed 36 inches in height and doesn’t block the line of sight for oncoming traffic. The encroachment can’t include any permanent structure.
Previously, town officials said they had identified 400 or so cases in town where residents had placed objects in the rights-of-way including trees, fences, shrubbery and even large boulders. Some residents said they did this to keep people from parking in their yard and destroying their landscaping.
A parade of residents Tuesday night argued that for years no one had ever said anything about keeping the right-of-way clear.
Town resident Larry McKeen said there are lots of trees along Surfside Drive and other places that are going to have to come down if the ordinance is strictly enforced. He said the town shouldn’t make residents take down their trees while the town can keep its trees.
“I can see lots of lawsuits coming out of this,” he said.
Harry Kohlmann accused the town of being the “biggest perpetrator of ordinance violations” when it comes to the right-of-way issue.
“Why are you being like the Feds by saying ‘do what I say, not what I do,’” he said.
Councilman Chris Stamey agreed with the speakers. He said the ordinance is a violation of the residents’ property rights. Stamey offered an amendment to have the right-of-way part of the ordinance removed, but that motion failed.
William Kinken also tried to amend the ordinance by having the entire section dealing with encroachments deleted until later, but that, too, failed.
Public Works Director John Adair said municipalities and other governmental entities across the nation have always had the right to control what goes into a public right-of-way such as signs, sidewalks and the like.
Adair added that any protected trees would not be removed to enforce the new law.
Councilman Michael Drake said the issue is simply that the three-foot right-of-way does not belong to the adjacent property owner and the owner doesn’t have the right to put anything there.
Agreeing with the new restrictions, councilwoman Cindy Keating said the measure is a reasonable way to enforce the clear cut zone throughout the town.
The ordinance passed with Stamey, Kinken and Paul Holder voting against it.