Kelli McKinney vacations on the Isle of Palms every year. With an engagement ring on her finger, the North Carolina stylist was set on a small beach wedding and shelled out thousands of dollars for a house. She found local photographers online with hundreds of beautiful beach weddings. Then she tried to book one to shoot her nuptials. No dice.
Isle of Palms has had a ban on any business on the beach for several years, but recent warnings by police and a stiff $1,100 fine has photographers turning away offers for weddings and family portraits on the island.
"I was like, 'Are you kidding me?'" McKinney says. "I'd rented this house and just wanted to walk out on the beach and have a simple wedding."
The ordinance states that "no person shall sell or rent, or offer to sell or rent, any goods, merchandise, or services, or solicit any trade or business, on the beach, beach accesses, public parking lots, or the Breach Inlet bridge, except pursuant to a franchise granted by city council, or pursuant to a city-sponsored activity or event."
The ordinance has done what it was intended to do, says acting Mayor Carol Rice — it's kept the beach vendor free.
"What we don't want is an atmosphere of a lot of business on the beach," she says. "It's very hard to draw a line in that sand, so to speak."
McKinney called the town hall and the local police and was told by both that it was illegal, but that a "family friend" could take the pictures without worry, as long as no money was exchanged on the beach. After several calls back to photographers, McKinney was able to find a "family friend" willing to shoot the wedding.
Douglas Kerr, the town's building director and the man in charge of codes enforcement, says the town hands out about two tickets a year to business owners violating the beach ban. Typically they go to surf instructors or people trying to rent out beach chairs. He doesn't know of any fines to photographers.
McKinney notes that a few photographers she contacted suggested that she relocate the wedding to Folly Beach, which doesn't have a similar ordinance. Bill Nixon, who runs a photography business with his wife, Kelli Nixon, warns potential clients on his website to avoid the Isle of Palms.
"If you have not rented a home on the Isle of Palms yet, choose Folly Beach instead," it reads.
The Isle of Palms isn't concerned about losing that tourism revenue if weddings are relocated to other beaches, Rice says. The town doesn't claim to offer prospective brides anything more than the sun, sand, and surf.
"We're not a catering venue," she says.
Nixon says that his wife was warned while trying to take a family portrait on the beach, and they're not going back.
"We shouldn't have to worry about something like this," he says. "If you work out there with a professional camera, you're at risk."
Milton Morris, a Florence photographer who shoots in Charleston several times a year says he has photographed weddings on Isle of Palms before, but he'll likely avoid them now. His past experience with municipal hurdles elsewhere has taught him that, in some cases, photographers are better off not knowing the rules.
"It's one of those things where you don't ask and you might get by with it," Morris says.