Exasperated with city leadership, some Myrtle Beach business owners don’t want to be in the city limits.
The business owners are pursuing what’s known as de-annexation, a challenging and uncommon process in South Carolina that requires not only a petition drive but an election to determine whether the properties can leave the city tax rolls and join the unincorporated county. Despite facing an uphill fight, the business owners maintain the city’s regulations — and the enforcement of those policies — have hampered their efforts to operate. Some landowners insist they can’t keep tenants in their buildings even in a strong economy.
“It’s crazy,” said Tuvia “Tim” Wilkes, who has run beachwear stores and other businesses in the city for decades. He owns nine vacant buildings. “If we can’t rent them now, what happens when we go back to normal or, God forbid, back to a recession?”
In recent years, Wilkes has been vocal about his struggles with the city. He’s criticized the overlay district city council created that prohibits CBD-vape shops from operating on Ocean Boulevard from 6th Avenue South to 16th Avenue North. The district also covers the side streets between the avenues leading up to the rear property line of businesses located on Kings Highway.
Several shop owners have filed a lawsuit against the city over that ban. The lawsuit alleges the ban is unconstitutional and targets Jewish storeowners.
Apart from that case, Wilkes said he has tried to lease his properties to entrepreneurs interested in a variety of businesses ranging from car washes to restaurants. At one point, he tried renting a facility to a church. However, he said the city’s regulations have thwarted his efforts. He wants out.
“Let the county enjoy the tax revenue,” he said. “[City officials] are losing tax money for the taxpayers because they don’t let anybody open the damn stores.”
The petition Wilkes signed Thursday states that business owners wish to leave the city based on “moral obligation.”
“The petitioners believe their presence in the city of Myrtle Beach, as landowners, business owners, and constituents, is not welcome by city government,” it reads. “As such, they see no future within the city limits and would like to be considered to be removed from the city limits and into Horry County instead.”
Sachin Patel also signed the petition Thursday. In February, the city sought to shut down the Lancer Motel, which Patel’s father started running in the 1980s. In court papers, city officials described the motel as a public nuisance because of “ongoing criminal activity,” including drugs, prostitution and larceny.
But the Patels challenged the city’s findings, arguing that the motel is located in a high-crime neighborhood. A judge reversed a decision by the city’s hearing officer last month, saying in a court filing that the officer appointed by the city manager lacked the jurisdiction to determine a public nuisance.
“The city of Myrtle Beach has called me a nuisance property even though we’re not the nuisance property,” Sachin Patel said. “My people have actually called the police on crimes that they see.”
He added that he signed the petition because he feels the city has treated his business and other small operators unfairly.
“It’s Myrtle Beach,” he said. “You’re going to have some deviants that are checking in. But my staff stays vigilant. If they see anybody with people in and out of the rooms or anything that raises red flags … the people get booted.”
This isn’t the first time Myrtle Beach landowners have debated de-annexation. About 12 years ago, county officials discussed the possibility of the south end of Myrtle Beach de-annexing from the city. At the time, some county officials thought the county could provide better police service through a special team of officers dedicated to that community.
“It seemed like a good option,” said former county councilman Marion Foxworth, who lives in the south end of the city. “There was some discussion among people in a couple of neighborhoods and I actually went and had a discussion with [former city manager] Tom Leath. … Better delivery of services, that’s what we were looking for.”
The conversation also focused on improving representation for southern Myrtle Beach. Foxworth has long advocated for single-member districts in the city where each community selects a representative for the council. Under the city’s current system, council members are elected at large, meaning they can come from anywhere in the city limits. Despite the initial interest, the de-annexation talk never went anywhere because of the steep requirements.
“It was too daunting,” Foxworth said. “When we realized what we would be up against, it didn’t look like it was going to be fruitful.”
De-annexation is a long shot in South Carolina. State statute describes the process this way:
“Whenever a petition is presented to a city or town council signed by a majority of the resident freeholders (property owners) of the municipality asking for a reduction of the corporate limits of the city or town, the council shall order an election after not less than ten days' public advertisement. This advertisement shall describe the territory that is proposed to be cut off. If a majority of the qualified electors vote at the election in favor of the release of the territory, the council must issue an ordinance declaring the territory no longer a portion of the municipality and must notify the Secretary of State of the new boundaries of the municipality.”
David Schwerd, the county’s director of planning and zoning, said he couldn’t recall a single successful case of de-annexation in the state. Schwerd said he did deal with this issue years ago when he worked as a consultant for the town of Aynor. A neighborhood there wanted to de-annex because its residents were upset about a road dispute.
The challenge of proposing de-annexation, Schwerd said, is that the other residents of a city might want to keep the exit-ready property owners’ tax dollars in municipal coffers.
“Normally somebody wants to leave because of the fact that they are paying a high tax or a high business license,” he said. “That means you would have the community vote to give up that money. So why would they do that?”
When contacted by myhorrynews.com, city spokesman Mark Kruea said he was unaware of the de-annexation petition.
“Usually property owners want to be inside a city because cities offer a higher level of service,” he said. “There’s certainly no requirement that a business locate inside an incorporated city.”
Chip Brown, a political scientist at Coastal Carolina University and a former Conway City Council member, also said unincorporated communities often want to be annexed into cities because municipalities typically provide better police, fire and public works services.
“I’ve dealt with a lot of annexation, not de-annexation,” he said. “Most people are begging to get in.”
But the people who are seeking to get out of Myrtle Beach insist the business climate in the city has changed.
Throughout several years, Myrtle Beach has shuttered multiple businesses under the public nuisance statute, including Superblock clubs Levelz, Club Pure Ultra and Natalia’s Bar and Grill.
In 2015, the city dropped an abatement order with Jimmagan’s Pub after the club owners agreed to close at 1 a.m. rather than 4 a.m. Jimmagan’s is located at 6003 North Kings Highway, miles north of the Superblock and downtown overlay districts.
With the city’s new downtown masterplan calling for sweeping improvements and ways to attract new and different businesses, city officials are rebranding the Superblock to be the Arts and Innovation District. The area recently received its historic district destination from the South Carolina Department of Archives and History allowing developers to receive state and federal tax credits when the buildings are improved upon.
The business owners spearheading the de-annexation effort in Myrtle Beach know they are pursuing a near-impossible goal. They pointed out that some of their stores were in place before the city’s policies, such as the overlay zone. And they insist these regulations are hurting business owners in ways city officials can’t understand.
“We invested our life into Myrtle Beach,” Wilkes said. “We took our money and invested it back into the properties of Myrtle Beach. They did not. They lose nothing. With these stupid laws, they lose nothing.”
Even if these businesses are somehow able to secede from the city, is the county willing to serve these properties?
County treasurer Angie Jones said she would issue county business licenses to the store owners if they comply with Horry's zoning laws.
"Horry County is not about prohibiting businesses from opening," she said.