Launch fees for individuals and lease agreements for kayak tour companies are two proposals North Myrtle Beach city council discussed Wednesday during workshop focused on controlling kayaks at the Cherry Grove boat ramp.
The city says the problem is there are eight different companies who use the public boat ramp at 53rd Avenue North for kayak tours. Some of the businesses unload kayaks at the ramp and give tours to walk-ups. The city and some Cherry Grove neighbors liken this to the city providing a free public space for them to do businesses.
“We’re not trying to get rid of them. Everybody has a right to do their own business,” said Cherry Grove homeowner Clay Nichols during the workshop. “I own my own business, but y’all don’t provide me a free place to set up. What we’d just like to do is control them. Have some rules.”
Another problem is the traffic the tours create: if several tours are operating at once and customers all drive their own cars, they can fill up the parking lot and leave few spaces for others, and large tours can fill up House Creek, forcing other boats to slow down when passing them.
“You can’t get through,” Nichols complained. “You have 20 kayakers out by the mouth of the jetty and they’re blocking the whole area. That’s not a no-wake zone. They’re allowed to pull inner-tubes, they’re allowed to waterski back there, but every time you go by a kayak you have to slow down so technically all of Cherry Grove is not accessible to somebody trying to run a boat on plane because these kayaks are everywhere.”
City Manager Mike Mahaney said the city has spent more than $1 million acquiring and building up the boat ramp since the 1980s. It has always been free to residents and kayak tour businesses, but Mayor Marilyn Hatley said she’d like to have an ordinance in place by spring (other officials said summer) that could change all of that.
“I think it is only right that these companies pay a fee to use that area, and I also think that we’re gonna have to limit how many cars, how many kayaks, how many people are gonna be there at one time because we need to leave it open for the rest of the community to use,” Hatley said.
Councilor Hank Thomas, who requested the workshop, suggested the city offer a franchise agreement with just one company to run kayak tours out of the boat ramp.
Mahaney disagreed with that idea, pointing out that having one company handle everything wouldn’t necessarily cut down on the number of kayakers using the ramp, and city attorney Chris Noury said the city can only offer franchise agreements for businesses on public streets and public beaches.
But, Noury said, the city could still force the kayak businesses to sign lease agreements with the city to use the ramp.
“At the end of the day, this is a city amenity, a city property, and the city certainly has the right to manage this amenity just like we manage the sports park, the aquatic and fitness center and the other amenities that we have available to the public,” he added.
The owners of J&L Kayak Tours and Glass Bottom Kayak Tours spoke during the workshop to rebut some of the broad characterizations that neighbors and some councilors had made about their businesses.
“This is how I eat; this is how I pay my mortgage,” said Laura Weaver of Glass Bottom Kayak Tours, whose customers book their tours online. “You’re right, the way things are going aren’t good, but that’s because we’ve had zero guidance from the city on this except to be yelled at about the parking situation. But if you put a lease agreement on there, you’re going to make me go into competition with people who own businesses outside of North Myrtle Beach. You’re going to put me against businesses who do more things than I do.”
Weaver graduated from North Myrtle Beach High School in 1993, and after 15 years as a teacher with Horry County Schools, she started operating her businesses in 2016. Her company employs 15 people and carries a $5 million insurance policy.
Her company takes out around 4,000 people a year on various types of tours, which are used as a vehicle to teach folks about the area’s natural resources.
“I would love for them to have some requirements of what it means to be in business as a kayak tour,” Weaver said after the meeting. “Right now, any Joe Shmoe can go get a license with no background in it, no safety training, and put them on the water. I’ve witnessed people who 'went into business' this summer put children in boats by themselves with no lifejackets or no whistles, so there has to be some sort of cutoff for safety otherwise the whole industry gets tagged down.”
Justin Summerall of J&L Kayak Tours told councilors that he has been in business since 2009, keeps his equipment off-site and doesn’t take walk-ups.
“We have a passenger van,” Summerall said. “In the summertime, when the parking gets tight, I already made arrangements and I have customers park in a different location that is not city property and we transport them using our 15-passenger van.”
Councilor Nikki Fontana agreed there should be an ordinance with some parameters for how to operate a kayak tour business, but she doesn’t support giving a lease or franchise to just one company to operate out of the ramp.
“To me, that’s not fair,” Fontana said. “Are we going to do that with our real estate companies? Are we going to do that with our other businesses that are the same? To me, I don’t I feel like that’s fair. That’s taking away someone’s livelihood from them. And that’s not the business that I’m in.”
Hatley said if the city does choose to lease out the ramp, it likely wouldn’t be limited to just one company.
“Several companies could be working out of there,” Hatley said. “They’re just gonna have to do a lease that’ll give some guidelines and probably pay the city for the use of the property.”
City spokesman Pat Dowling said it was too early to say if out-of-town companies could compete for the lease agreement or even if the city would take that route.
“Staff will develop a couple of approaches and then council will hold another workshop to consider and discuss them,” he said. “We want kayaking and other boating pursuits to thrive under more manageable conditions.”
But even a lease deal with several kayak tour companies wouldn’t necessarily preclude the city from also charging a payment from individual residents who bring their own kayaks and boats to the ramp.
“One of the recommendations was that they would have to pay a launch fee, so we’ll just have to wait and see what the recommendation of the staff is,” Hatley said. “They may have to do a launch fee. We don’t know that yet. We’ll just have to wait and see.”