Friday, July 19, 2024

On a mission to smash a Wrightsville Beach monopoly, umbrella dealers face uphill battle

The legal effort has been met with reluctance and aversion from some town leaders.

Dealing beach chairs and umbrellas to visitors is a trade reserved for oceanfront hotels and clubs on Wrightsville Beach. Attorneys hired by a small business owner are asking a reluctant town government to reconsider that restriction. (Port City Daily/Preston Lennon)

WRIGHTSVILLE BEACH—Attorneys hired by a beach equipment rental company are in the midst of a campaign to break up the monopoly that beachfront hotels and clubs hold over the day trade of chairs, umbrellas and other gear on the Wrightsville Beach shores. 

The exclusive rights, held by establishments like Blockade Runner and the Surf Club, currently blacklist small businesses from dealing beach equipment on the sand. 

The effort appears to be an uphill battle. The planning board showcased their displeasure with a unanimous thumbs-down vote in March; then the board of aldermen nixed a public hearing on the proposed rule change at its April meeting and sent the matter back to the planning board for additional review. 

“They are also taking a beach space for their profit,” planning board member Leigh Ann Joyner said at the March meeting, according to the minutes. “They are technically renting out beach space. What is the town getting?”

Cape Fear Beach Rentals, the company leading the charge to have the town code changed, has an attorney team from Ward and Smith at its side. At the April 8 board of aldermen meeting, the town’s planning director discussed the proposed amendments, which were designed by the private attorneys to loosen restrictions on who can apply for a permit to conduct oceanfront business.

“This is not how I wish to proceed on a matter like this,” Mayor Darryl Mills said, following the preview. “To come up here with multiple choice — ‘If not this than this.’ We’re not going to do it that way.”

Attorneys for the rental company left town hall after the board opened, then instantaneously recessed, the public hearing and delayed further discussion. Ward and Smith did not respond to questions about their client’s campaign. 

Codified into the town’s local ordinances is a provision that makes it impermissible for businesses to collect money and conduct business on the sand — unless you’re a private club, resort or hotel that owns property on the ocean.

“Our amendment would change that language to allow private vendors, who are properly permitted, to also provide this service,” according to Cape Fear Beach Rentals’ website. “We believe this change will benefit folks at the beach, who aren’t staying in an oceanfront resort or private club, by allowing them access to beach equipment services.” 

Blockade Runner, the Surf Club and Shell Island Resort did not respond to requests for comment. 

Blockade Runner at Wrightsville Beach is one of select beach town establishments granted the right to deal in the beach gear day trade. Small businesses want in on the action. (Port City Daily/Preston Lennon)

Wrightsville Beach Town Manager Tim Owens said the beach town hosted a similar debate in 2018, when a condo complex wanted to establish a beach equipment service. 

“They said, ‘We want to do it here,’ but they were already operating at the time,” Owens recalled.  “They went through this process, they were denied, they continued to operate.” 

Then last summer Owens received a call from a concerned resident about a blocked driveway. Upon investigation he discovered Cape Fear Beach Rentals was making illicit beach gear deals and indeed was blocking access to a driveway, he said. 

Shortly thereafter, Got Shade Beach Rentals, another similar company, faced problems for the first time in 10 years of operation, said co-owner Nicole Perry, who runs the company alongside her husband Frank. 

She and Frank have a longstanding relationship with lifeguards on the beach. It was always smiles and waves, she said, until last August when a Wrightsville Beach Ocean Rescue official called Frank and said he’d be getting a ticket for violating a town ordinance. 

“We had no idea we weren’t supposed to be doing it,” Perry said, adding since that day they changed their practices to comply with the rule.

“We haven’t been on the sand since last August.”

The source of the tension, Perry claimed, was that the operator of Cape Fear Beach Rentals, who she considers a friend, “apparently parked in the old mayor’s spot or something, and that made him mad, and that’s what stirred all this up.”

Perry added that her company, and Cape Fear Beach Rentals, too, provide a valuable service to day trippers and tourists who don’t want to worry about lugging gear to the beach on vacation. The clientele is mostly “wealthy or old,” Perry said.

“They don’t want to bring all this stuff, they’d rather pay somebody to do it,” she said. “We had everybody call Tim Owens and send their emails all to Tim Owens, so he could know that we’ve got all this support. You saw where that got us.” 

Owens said restricting the business opportunity to the prominent beachside institutions keeps congestion at bay. He emphasized the final decision will be made by the board of aldermen.

“They are pretty much in their own little bubble, renting to their own members,” Owens said of the beachside institutions. “So there’s not this situation where everybody’s running up and down the roads, blocking up driveways.”

In the application packet for the proposed rule change, Cape Fear Beach Rentals and their attorneys argue that such an amendment would not turn the beach into a wild west, but instead would allow more opportunities for small businesses, and more access to necessary gear for beachgoers.

“Allowing residents and visitors other than beach-front hotel guests to rent beach equipment expands the opportunity for equal enjoyment of the beach, while reducing the burden on residents and the public to bring their own beach equipment with them,” according to the submittals. 

“This would eliminate the need for traveling guests to either forego beach equipment, or purchase single-use beach equipment that they cannot bring home and may leave behind on the beaches.” 

Before putting their unfavorable recommendation on the record, the planning board had a different take at their meeting last month. 

“They clearly have no regard for public policy,” Joyner said at the meeting, according to the minutes. “And this beach has a history of not enforcing it like smoking on the beach. So, why should we add one more thing to the list?”

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