Folly Beach: A six-mile strip of sand, situated at the dead end of a highway and far removed from the genteel influence of peninsular Charleston. Since the early 18th century when pirates allegedly made stops on the island, successive waves of eccentrics, good ol' boys, damn Yankees, and beer-swilling spring breakers have crashed on her shores and somehow created a community.
Today, Folly Beach is faced with at least three crises. First, and most dramatically, the island itself is washing away at a rate of about seven feet per year as a result of man-made erosion and the occasional hurricane. Second, the beach — which used to be the only one in South Carolina that allowed open containers of alcohol — is entering its first completely dry summer since City Council passed a controversial booze ban. And third, city government is mired in dysfunction, a problem that occasionally bubbles up in public confrontations. The direness of the situation was evident at a May 28 City Council meeting when Mayor Pro Tem Eddie Ellis turned to Mayor Tim Goodwin and announced, "I wouldn't even poop in your yard if I was a dog." That is an actual quote. Some of the audience members applauded.
To an outsider, it's not immediately apparent what the locals mean when they say "Keep Folly Folly." Are they referring to the quirky small-town vibe or the market for million-dollar beachfront mansions? The family-friendly sense of community or the freewheeling beach-party spirit? There were 2,600 people living in the City of Folly Beach at the time of the 2010 census, and there are perhaps just as many nuanced opinions about the needs of the beloved fishing-village-turned-tourist-hotspot.
Whatever the future holds for Folly Beach, the consequences will be felt off the island. Folly is a small linchpin in South Carolina's $16.5 billion tourism industry, classier than Dirty Myrtle and more affordable than Hilton Head.
Inlanders are feeling ripples from Folly Beach's problems in unexpected ways. The erosion, for instance, isn't just a concern for the obstinate souls who built second homes on shifting beachfront sand. At Backman Seafood, a fish shop on Sol Legare Road about two miles north of Folly, erosion in the Folly River and its tributaries has made the water shallower and blocked fishermen's traditional route to the sea. Billy Goss, a co-owner of the store, says he hasn't seen conditions this bad in the 43 years he's worked there.
"We've got boats that are supposed to come in and unload at our dock, but they're afraid to come in here," Goss says. Now, what used to be a 30-minute boat ride to the ocean has become a journey of at least two-and-a-half hours, with fishermen either taking Wappoo Cut to Charleston Harbor or various channels to Wadmalaw Island.
Then there are the surfers. Waveriders on the Carolina coast have long treasured Folly, which boasts well-formed if relatively small waves at a rock-strewn northern enclave known as the Washout. But according to Jud Bushkar, a salesman at the legendary McKevlin's Surf Shop, the waves are changing. "Ninth and 10th block used to be popular, and now they're pretty terrible," Bushkar says. And the Washout ain't what it used to be, with the quality of waves diminishing since Hurricane Irene took a bite out of the beach in 2011. The Washout is still the best spot, he says, but at high tide, some surfers are relocating to the fishing pier.
"But then they're not going to let you surf at the pier during the summer a lot of hours because the lifeguards are out there," Bushkar says. "So I guess people are just going to be unhappy."
About that erosion problem: It's not Folly Beach's fault. It's not even Mother Nature's fault, at least not entirely. The bulk of the blame rests on the shoulders of the federal government.
Islands along the East Coast are naturally in flux, waxing and waning as ocean currents carry sand from one beach to another. Left to its own devices, a beach might shrink one year and grow the next. But in the 1880s, the Army Corps of Engineers built rock jetties in the Charleston Harbor to protect a valuable shipping route. This was great news for the port, but it spelled a slow death for Folly Beach, which continued to lose sand to beaches farther south (like Kiawah Island) without receiving any of the displaced sand from beaches farther north (like Sullivan's Island). After Folly Beach homeowners sued for damages, the federal government conducted a study and agreed in 1987 to pay for about three-quarters of the cost of renourishment projects until 2037.
In August 2011, Hurricane Irene dealt a serious blow to Folly, destroying dunes and washing the sand away from underneath major structures at Folly Beach County Park on the southwestern end of the island. The park has remained closed ever since, but the Charleston County Park and Recreation Commission is in the midst of a capital bond-funded $3.46 million renourishment project to pump 415,000 cubic yards of sand from the Folly River and build a retaining wall called a terminal groin at the southern end. Project manager Andy Hammill says he still can't give a firm finish date for the project, but the sand dredging, which ended in May, constitutes about two-thirds of the project, with construction of the groin making up the remaining third. Looking out over the worksite from a raised platform, the progress is obvious. Bulldozers and steam shovels have leveled out a wide swath of sand, big enough to support a 200-space parking lot and hordes of beachgoers, that wasn't there a year ago.
Renourishment has its opponents. The influential Coastal Conservation League initially fought back against Park and Rec's plan, citing the potential depletion of bird habitats south of the groin. The wall will extend 200 feet into the ocean, and the CCL argued that it could cause — once again — a blockage of sand deposits. The CCL eventually dropped its threat of a lawsuit after Park and Rec agreed to hire an independent environmental monitoring team for the project.
Even when the park reopens, the city, the state, and the Corps of Engineers will have to reckon with more than five miles of beach to the north of the park. Cost estimates for an island-wide renourishment project have mushroomed from $15 million to about $25 million, and in the current legislative budget session, state legislators from the Lowcountry are meeting opposition as they try to secure state funding for the project. According to Rep. Peter McCoy, who represents Folly Beach, the federal government has already committed to all but $3 million of the cost, with $2 million coming from Folly Beach and $1 million from the state. That $1 million was stricken from the state Senate budget a few weeks ago, but McCoy says the local Senate delegation is pushing to get it back in the final budget. "I've been told by leadership that this is one of the top three priorities, keeping that Folly money in the budget," McCoy says. "So they're going to dig their heels in, and hopefully we'll put it right back in there when we start doing the conference committee meetings."
One alternative to renourishment is retreat. Katie Zimmerman, CCL's project manager and a former employee of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, says renourishment projects are only temporary fixes for larger environmental problems. "How long are we going to continue to funnel money into projects like this to try to keep the beach in its current state when we're fighting sea level rise and climate change? People cannot expect to have the beach remain the same," Zimmerman says.
But Nicole Elko, a geomorphologist who runs a consulting firm on Wadmalaw Island, says Folly Beach is worth renourishing — and not just because of the oceanfront properties. "When a hurricane is headed this way, you want as much sand between you and the ocean as possible," Elko says. "And that's not just rich private property owners. That's this whole beach economy." Elko says erosion on Folly could be causing the Folly River to become more shallow as displaced sand wraps around a southern inlet and settles in the riverbed.
"I don't think it's a Band-Aid. I mean, I don't know of any governments that have longer planning time frames than 50 to 100 years, so our organization supports nourishment over the next 50 years as the viable — and really the only — alternative for places like Folly, because they're not going anywhere. The whole town isn't just going to pack up and abandon it," Elko says.
The chalkboard sign advertising happy hour at Snapper Jack's reflects an unsinkable optimism: "Can't drink on the beach? That's cool. You can drink here!" And why not? If anybody is going to reap the benefits of the Folly Beach booze ban, it's the beach bars like Snapper Jack's. Breezy, dark, and located on the main drag just a block from the beach, it would be the perfect place to grab a cold brew after a long day in the sun.
But during happy hour on a warm day in June, bartender Patrick Burns is looking out over a mostly empty room. A few barflies are clustered near the wide, open window that faces out onto the sidewalk, double-fisting beers and mixed drinks, but for the most part, it's eerily quiet for this time of year. "Usually the season kicks off in March, and this year, it feels like it hasn't — still," Burns says. "They thought that banning on the beach would get the bars busy, but everybody just goes to the other beaches where they're not patrolling."
A few blocks north on Center Street, the Drop In Bar & Deli isn't enjoying any new patronage from throngs of thirsty beachgoers either. In fact, General Manager Brandon Dyer says business dropped off dramatically after the ban passed in August 2012, eventually settling at about 25 percent lower than pre-ban levels. The difference was especially apparent around Spring Break this year. "People still vacationed here, but it just wasn't as lively. And by 'lively,' I don't mean 'rowdy.' I mean the bars weren't hopping, and it didn't look like a Spring Break destination. It just looked like Folly offseason, really," Dyer says.
Mayor Tim Goodwin, who pushed for the booze ban when it passed in August 2012, insists it isn't hurting business overall. Goodwin claims that accommodations and hospitality tax revenues are on the rise in Folly Beach. But according to Charleston County spokesperson Shawn Smetana, the city's hospitality tax revenue for January through May 2012 was $164,000, a figure that dropped to $148,000 for the same five-month period in 2013. Accommodations tax revenue, meanwhile, rose slightly from $60,000 in January-May 2012 to $63,000 in January-May 2013.
Perhaps it's just a curious artifact of small-town government, but Mayor Goodwin is also filling the unofficial role of police press secretary. When the City Paper stopped in at Folly Beach Police Department headquarters to ask Chief Dennis Brown a few questions about enforcement of the ban, the receptionist informed us that the chief was directing questions next door to City Hall. Goodwin later explained that it's city policy to send press requests to the mayor's office. We never got to meet Chief Brown.
Goodwin says he's not sure how many drinking tickets the police have handed out so far, but he says it's "not very many." As for enforcement, he says it's done the same way as at other beaches in the area. "Nobody's going around sniffing your cup. Nobody's going around checking your cooler on the beach," Goodwin says. "I'm not saying it's OK to break the law, but I'm saying if you're not being out of hand and rowdy or dancing on top of your cooler throwing a beer can at somebody, the chances are they're going to go right on by you."
One of the ban's most outspoken supporters has been LaJuan Kennedy, a lifelong Folly Beach resident and the owner of Fred Holland Realty, one of the real estate companies on the island. She says about 80 percent of her company's properties go to "absentee homeowners," people who buy or rent a Folly house as a second home and are out of town for most of the year. She says conditions before the ban were unbearable for her and her customers. "A lot of urination in people's yards, throwing trash in their yards. The language was atrocious. Our families stopped coming," Kennedy says.
Kennedy also remembers the July 4th 2012 melee that led Folly Beach to issue a temporary alcohol ban on the beach before making it permanent the next month. On that day when American flag bikini-clad college girls and dubstepping bro-magnons threw beer cans at cops while chanting "USA! USA! USA!" in faux-patriotic reverie, Kennedy was standing in her front yard three blocks from the beach, and she says she could hear the roar of the crowd. That was the last straw. Today, she looks back on the alcohol ban and calls it "one of the best things Folly Beach has ever done."
"It is a much better beach. It is a much better community for the citizens that actually live out here," Kennedy says. "I have not talked to any of the citizens that actually live here and vote here that would want it to go back to the other way."
Maybe Kennedy is being honest. Maybe she really hasn't spoken to any detractors since the day the booze ban passed. But if it's true, it only goes to illustrate how fractured the island is.
There are indeed residents who dislike the ban, and some of them don't even want to drink on the beach. What really steams their oysters is how the ban came about. They rail against City Council members who ran on a platform promising that any ban proposal would go up for a public referendum, but when it came time for a decision, they put it to a council vote.
"If we had all come together and voted, I think everybody would have abided by the vote," says Cynthia Wiles, who has lived on Folly Beach since moving from James Island in 1997. "But it was the fact that we didn't have that vote, it made some people feel like they were disenfranchised, that they didn't get a chance."
Wiles doesn't have a seat in government, and she's not interested in running for office. She's a watchdog, the type of person who files Freedom of Information requests in her spare time. She's also a frequent commenter on Follitics, an open discussion page on Facebook where a lot of angst about city government has been churning up in recent months.
Sitting on her screen porch overlooking the Folly River, surrounded by clusters of seashells and sand dollars on the porch railing, Wiles recalls why she moved here in the first place. "I kind of am a little oddball myself, and when I came to Folly, I felt like I belonged," she says. "To me, it was like we had our rich, we had our poor, Democrats and Republicans, we had our crazy uncles and our prim and proper aunts, but we all got along because when it got tough, we came together."
Carl Beckmann, who served as mayor of Folly Beach from 2006 to 2010, paints a grim picture of the community's future. He distrusts the police chief, he thinks the city made a grave mistake in letting a longtime city administrator go, and he sees a difficult road ahead for those who would seek to protect the beach against further erosion. And he can't stand current mayor Tim Goodwin, to whom he lost by a landslide in the 2010 election. In true Folly Beach fashion, Beckmann's wife Elizabeth was among the rabble-rousers applauding Councilman Eddie Ellis' "poop in your yard" dis at City Hall last month.
"I could say, 'No comment,' and that would be taking the chicken way out," Carl Beckmann says. "But having been there for three years, I think Tim Goodwin as a mayor has failed miserably." Welcome to politics in Mayberry by the Sea, where the political is always personal.
Mayor Goodwin's opponents sometimes refer to him as "King Tim," not for any onerous policy positions, but for what they see as a my-way-or-the-highway style of government. In one oft-repeated anecdote, the mayor entered City Hall on his first day after being elected and posted up a sheet of paper showing the election results. Councilman Ellis tells the story with relish: "His introduction to the employees was, 'You see these numbers up here? This is the will of the people. They put me in here, and I'm in charge.'" Goodwin confirms that he said something to that effect, but he says he was simply stressing the point that city employees would no longer be allowed to work from home as they had under previous administrations.
Opposition to the mayor came to a head in May, when word got out that City Council would be considering a $100,000 retirement and severance package for well-liked City Administrator Toni Connor-Rooks, who had worked 17 years for the city. Around the same time, someone discovered that Mayor Goodwin had submitted a letter to the S.C. Attorney General's office in January asking for a legal opinion on whether a mayor had the right to suspend and fire certain city employees — including the city administrator — without consulting City Council. According to the letter, taking up the issue with council would lead to a public vote, and "This process would publically [sic] embarrass the person in question, and any delay in taking action would give the person time to delete emails, destroy documents, and otherwise engage in conduct that would disrupt the administration of the city." The attorney general wrote back to say that a mayor did not have the power to unilaterally fire city employees.
The revelation provoked a small sandstorm of discontent on the island. Cynthia Wiles filed Freedom of Information requests to see the original letter to the A.G.'s office. A small contingent of Connor-Rooks boosters showed up to raise hell during the public comment session at City Council. At the same council meeting, Councilman Ellis launched into a well-rehearsed 10-minute rant before promising to defeat Goodwin in the April 2014 mayoral election. Ellis says he had watched Goodwin being rude to Connor-Rooks on a daily basis since taking office, and his own stinging invective was just giving the mayor "a taste of his own medicine."
"You know what? It's not complicated," Ellis says. "The mayor's an asshole, basically."
Connor-Rooks remained tight-lipped throughout the City Council debate over her retirement package, casting her eyes toward her lap as Goodwin and Ellis traded verbal jabs in the council chambers. When the motion had been approved, she offered little in way of explanation, only telling the crowd, "I cannot work under present circumstances." She declined to comment after the meeting and has not replied to requests for an interview.
In the hallway at City Hall, when asked if there was any animosity between him and Connor-Rooks, Goodwin said, "Not from my side of the story."
Goodwin insists he's no tyrant. "I'm gonna tell you this just like I've told all the other press and just like I've told the employees," Goodwin said in a later phone interview. "All I expect you to do is to come to work and do the job that you're getting paid to do."
It's a quiet weekday afternoon on Center Street, the home of City Hall, bars and restaurants, tchotchke shops, and Folly Beach's only stoplight. For now, Folly still looks like Folly: Couples riding beach cruisers in no particular hurry. Visor-capped New Jerseyites loudly debating which bar to hit up first. A shirtless older gentleman in a golf cart with a tribal tattoo on his withered bicep.
But despite its laid-back ambience, Folly has issues. Just ask Greta Anderson, a stay-at-home mom who, like Cynthia Wiles, has filed numerous Freedom of Information requests in an attempt to smoke out malfeasance in city government. She doesn't have anything definitive yet, but she's raising a lot of hell at City Hall in the process. "I don't have a dog in this fight, but I can't stand a bully, and the more I get into it, the more it upsets me what's going on out here," Anderson says. Last week, she and Connor-Rooks spent an entire afternoon talking about the state of the city and who's to blame. It's enough to drive a person to drink.
"You know, I live here on Folly, I pay property taxes, I'm almost 50 years old," Anderson says. "When my husband comes off the road, he's been gone for a week, first thing he wants to do is go for a swim. Second thing he wants to do is sit on the beach and have a beer and watch the sunset."
Change is coming, sure as the tide. You can see it at the 12th Street public beach access, toward the northeastern end of the island, where a wooden walkway crosses over the dunes and meets the sand a mere 20 yards from the lapping waves. There, a long-haired man wades out in the water, soaking his jeans up to his knees, and casts a line. He keeps his tackle in a backpack that he leaves on some wood pilings beside a spare shirt and an open can of Yuengling. One could venture to say he's doing his small part to keep Folly Folly, in all of its free-spirited, wave-battered glory.
Here's a toast, Folly Beach, to your health.