A note from Sullivan's Island: The town appreciates your right to artistic expression and the undeniable hook of "Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)," but please keep it to yourself. While you're at it, try to refrain from whistling The Andy Griffith Show theme song, even if you are walking down a dusty island road with a fishing rod over your shoulder.
Last week, Sullivan's Island announced that it was banning singing, yelling, shouting, hooting, and whistling on public streets between 11 p.m. and 7 a.m., "or at any time or place so as to annoy or disturb the quiet, comfort, or repose of persons in any office, or in any dwelling, or other type of residence, or of any persons in the vicinity."
In a vacuum, the ban on singing and whistling would just look like an embarrassing attempt to conform with similar ordinances elsewhere (it's modeled after a North Charleston law that has likely never been enforced). It's also part of a larger effort to beef up nuisance standards — and nobody likes a drunk stumbling through their backyard at all hours of the night humming the latest Justin Bieber tune.
The argument from the town is that it's deterring bad tourists, not tourism in general. But it's the latest example of a turn toward isolationism among our coastal communities. Increased regulations and fees are aggressively stifling businesses that cater to day trippers and tourists. Some island residents on Sullivan's, Folly, and Isle of Palms aren't just trying to chase off troublemakers. They're trying to deter visitors.
"Whenever I feel afraid, I hold my head erect
And whistle a happy tune so no one will suspect
—"Whistle a Happy Tune" from The King and I
Sullivan's Island has been struggling with the popularity of its commercial district for years. After new restaurants cropped up around Poe's Tavern and Dunleavy's Pub in 2008, the town banned new bars or restaurants within 300 feet of an existing bar or restaurant, essentially eliminating the possibility of new establishments.
But the problems persisted, largely due to a lack of parking on the strip. As a result, bar and restaurant patrons were driven to residential side streets. The town commissioned a plan for the commercial area in 2008 that would address these concerns, and contractors came back with a proposal to modify zoning ordinances so that businesses would be expected to provide on-site parking. Some residents complained that it would just mean more visitors to the island.
Sounds still legal on Sullivan's Island
(... as far as we know, and at low volume)
Those gripes led then-Councilman Everett Presson to proclaim, "We do not want one more single person to come to Sullivan's Island." It was an odd statement coming from a real estate agent. An island resident for four decades, Presson is a little more accepting of visitors these days.
"We always welcome the day trippers" he says, noting the restaurants that residents enjoy only thrive because of the guests that come to the island. "We just want them to behave."
Presson says the conflict between nearby residents around the commercial district has improved because of increased police enforcement. And those officers certainly take the noise very seriously.
Bar owners at Dunleavy's, Poe's, and Home Team BBQ were issued citations for a string of noise violations on May 2. Each proprietor received a $1,040 ticket, apparently for having their doors open with music playing. No residents had complained, but Police Chief Danny Howard said the venues had been warned before.
Bill Dunleavy argued at the May 18 Town Council meeting that the ordinance needed to be modified if he was going to get a ticket for the music coming out of his front door.
"I can understand if it's blaring and going into the residential neighborhood," he said, according to The Moultrie News, but, "if you're on Middle Street, you can expect to hear noise."
Handling the bars appears to be the easy job. Trying to wrangle the latenight crowd between the exit signs and their cars is a more difficult problem. Aside from the noise, residents have reported empty alcohol bottles, cigarette butts, and used condoms littered in the yards.
In a response to the resident concerns, business owners and neighbors constructed a fence this February to keep patrons from walking through yards behind the businesses on the eastern side of Middle Street, like Station 22 and other establishments.
But the fence was not enough.
Do you hear the people sing? Singing the song of angry men?
It is the music of a people who will not be slaves again.
—"Do You Hear the People Sing?" from Les Miserables
Chicago resident Kirk Thorne saw the news about the Sullivan's Island singing ordinance in a CNN clip he received from a friend in Columbia. Thorne would often visit the Lowcountry when he used to live in South Carolina's capital. His family and friends came down from the Windy City for an IOP vacation earlier this spring.
The news struck a nerve. Thorne was already irked about Sullivan's Island's stringent dog license policy. The city has a steep $35 fee that is stringently enforced, even on weekends, when the license office isn't available to guests.
"They've gone a step too far," he says of the new singing ban. "It is becoming increasingly cumbersome to come down there."
Former Councilman Presson was similarly baffled by the new ordinance.
"People are laughing at it," he says. "There are laws on the books about disturbing the peace."
Chief Howard says the ordinance will address holes in the existing disorderly conduct laws for things like yelling and hooting. It will be used primarily to target rowdy patrons around closing time in the commercial district, but it could also apply to an out-of-control mid-afternoon house party.
The chief says this isn't about chasing off guests.
"We're not trying to discourage anybody," he says. "It's just to let you realize the majority of the town is a residential area."
I gotta right to sing the blues
I gotta right to feel lowdown
I gotta right to hang around
Down around the river
—"I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues" by Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler
Fittingly, the growing anti-visitor sentiment on coastal islands began a decade ago on Sullivan's Island. The town put a moratorium on new vacation rentals in 2000. Marshall Stith, the mayor at the time, supported the ban and framed it as a difference of opinion between permanent residents and everyone else.
"I don't know if they can feel what the year-round residents can feel," he told The Post and Courier at the time.
The village appeal has ironically made the island more attractive to visitors and beachgoers.
Over the last two years, that anti-tourist sentiment has not only grown on Sullivan's, it has stretched to the Isle of Palms to the north and Folly Beach to the south. In August 2008, Folly Beach banned alcohol sales from 2 a.m. to 6 a.m. The Town Council said the ban would prevent bar patrons from grabbing booze and hitting the beach after the bars closed. Another ordinance limited jet skis and other "personal water craft" to a one-block area near the Folly pier.
A month later, Folly created an ordinance that would prohibit music outdoors after 10 p.m. Sundays through Thursdays and after midnight on the weekends and holidays. Residents near the commercial district had complained that the music was keeping them up. In December of that year, Folly targeted beach businesses by creating a franchise program that would limit rental items to chairs, umbrellas, and jet skis or other "personal water craft." Councilman Eddie Ellis said it would prevent over-commercialization of the beach.
For years, Isle of Palms had limited business on its beaches, but 2008 brought more stringent enforcement from police officers. Stiff fines led photographers and other professionals to refuse beach wedding parties. Asked whether she was worried about losing the revenue associated with those events, acting IOP Mayor Carol Rice told the City Paper, "We're not a catering venue."
In November 2008, the Sullivan's Island Town Council introduced an ordinance to prohibit delivery trucks from making deliveries on the island between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m., prompting concern from inconvenienced businesses owners. The town also increased the license fees on restaurants and bars, nearly doubling what similar establishments were paying in Charleston and on Folly or IOP.
But 2009 brought reasons for the islands to be weary of their guests. In April, one wild night on Isle of Palms led to 47 charges of underage possession of alcohol. The busts occurred in two separate homes rented by Citadel cadets celebrating the end of the knob program, their first stage of training. Three months later, volunteers were picking up tons of the Fourth of July waste on island beaches throughout the region, particularly on Folly and the remote Morris Island.
Earlier this spring, Isle of Palms raised its dog license over concerns that visitors would bring their dogs to its shores because of a cheaper price than the one on Sullivan's Island.
Bringing it full circle, a new ordinance introduced on the IOP last month would limit rental guests at new homes to 12. In the discussions, supporters referenced Sullivan's successful 10-year moratorium.
"We're trying to keep it as residential as possible while still allowing people to rent their homes," Councilwoman Barbara Bergwerf told The Post and Courier.
Folly Beach Zoning Administrator Aaron Pope told the paper that the town was considering a new rule that would allow the city to refuse a request to renew a rental license if the address had excessive complaints, like rowdy beach house parties .
"The residents we do have out here sometimes feel like they are being held hostage by the huge 10-bedroom house next door," Pope said.
Don't worry that it's not good enough for anyone else to hear.
Just sing, sing a song.
—"Sing" by The Carpenters
Former Folly Beach Mayor Carl Beckmann managed the town through the last four years as his island wrangled with the pressures of residents wanting peace and quiet and businesses wanting to be successful. In the best cases, business owners and rental managers realized they needed to be good neighbors and responsive to the concerns of nearby residents.
But Beckmann says homeowners have to be reasonable.
"We have some residents who would just as soon see Center Street dry up," says Beckmann, who lost his job in May's elections. "The residents who don't consider the business part of the community are to the point where they're living in a dream world."
Islands benefit from the taxes businesses collect, as well as fees from business permits. For example, Sullivan's Island will collect nearly $1.5 million next year from property taxes, but revenue from business licenses and permits, sales taxes, and franchise fees bring in almost an equal amount, nearly $1.3 million.
And the impact of businesses and visitors goes beyond that. Beckmann notes that Folly Beach wouldn't receive state and federal support for beach nourishment, replacing the sand lost to the tides and storms, without public access to the beach, like the $16 million in new sand Folly's beaches received in 2005.
Beckmann says the island has always welcomed tourists and day trippers.
"If you come to Folly Beach looking for none of those, you came to the wrong island," he says, pointing south to resort communities like Kiawah and Seabrook.
In the end, it's certainly not unusual for people to get upset about noise. We've had the people living upstairs knock on our door at 3 a.m. to turn music down, and we've had to ask our neighbor to wrap up a latenight Guitar Hero marathon.
But there are some sacrifices you make when you decide to live in a destination. When the downtown Mellow Mushroom was planning a rooftop patio, King Street neighbors complained about the noise that would come along with it. Mellow Mushroom worked hard to address the concerns of nearby neighbors, but city officials were more concerned about parking, an issue that was later resolved.
Charleston Zoning Administrator Lee Batchelder noted at the time that the King Street district isn't Wisteria Lane.
"I don't think it's unusual to anticipate that there's going to be some noise and inconvenience occasionally," he said. "That's one of the attractive things about living in this neighborhood."
When your community is a national destination for visitors and tourists — a place that you likely also first saw as a tourist — it should be no surprise that you're not going to be left alone to read the latest Dot Frank book in peace and quiet.
As for the ban on singing and whistling, we note with irony what happened on the day the music died in Don McLean's "American Pie."
And the three men I admire most:
The father, son, and the holy ghost,
They caught the last train for the coast.
Let's just hope, for their sake, that they don't bring the music with them when they hit the beach.