Wednesday, July 24, 2024

Beach gear rental companies face latest hurdle at opposition-filled Wrightsville Beach meeting

Beach town leaders view the gear rental companies as taking up sand space for their own profit, while the companies counter that they provide a service otherwise unobtainable. (Port City Daily/Preston Lennon)

WRIGHTSVILLE BEACH — A beach equipment rental company and its attorney hit another snag this week in their campaign to convince the Town of Wrightsville Beach to allow visitors and residents more egalitarian access to umbrellas and chairs on town sand. 

The issue at hand is the section of town code that regulates business on the shores. Ben Rhodes, owner of Cape Fear Beach Rentals, has found himself operating in a “grey area,” he told the planning board on Tuesday. He and likeminded competitors can deliver umbrellas and chairs to the driveway of a property, but town code prevents them from dealing it directly to a client’s preferred spot on the sand. 

In Wrightsville Beach, only hotels, clubs and resorts along the oceanfront have such power — to deal rental gear on the beach — and the debate has sparked a philosophical examination into the future of the beach town’s character. 

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

Rhodes hired Sam Franck of Ward and Smith to represent his company’s interests before Wrightsville Beach channels. Last month they faced a board of aldermen reluctant to hear a presentation. Their application was sent back to the planning board, where it was considered Tuesday. 

Rhodes and Franck attempted to make the case that current regulations prevent all visitors from equal access to beach equipment. Visitors staying outside of the prominent hotels and resorts do not have the chance to effortlessly obtain umbrellas and chairs, Franck told the planning board.

“That’s inherently unfair,” he said. 

If a beach-goer is elderly or has a disability, and is unable to schlep their own gear from home, they are out of luck, he said. What’s more, he added, giving rental companies more room to operate would cut down on single-use beach equipment that could end up as litter. To bolster his case, he brought along the building manager of the Islander, a condominium complex on Wrightsville Beach. 

The building manager said many of the complex’s residents have utilized, and relied on, beach equipment rental companies in the past.

“I have an aging membership of owners,” the building manager told the planning board. “And for physical aging medical issues, some of them are not able to use the beach, because they can’t physically carry the equipment. This was a service that was very well reviewed by them.”

The argument did not convince the planning board, who unanimously cast an unfavorable recommendation. Rhodes will have another chance to make his case at a board of aldermen meeting next week. 

The Surf Club is one of a handful of clubs, resorts or hotels that hold oceanfront property. These types of entities are the only ones allowed to deal beach gear on the sand. (Port City Daily/Preston Lennon)

Board members and some residents view the request from beach rental companies as a nightmare omen, indicative of a path down a slippery slope, for which the endgame is becoming Myrtle Beach. 

They cast warnings of impeded driveways and crowded beach accesses, made chaotic by an endless stream of entrepreneurs attempting to monetize the shores. 

“The beach is supposed to be used and enjoyed by everyone, and I get that,” board member Karen King said. “But when you can’t get out of your driveway, because … and I agree, who’s going to enforce all of this? Because I can tell you that the mooring of vessels on the sound side is not enforced.”

One resident, who said his family owned an oceanfront house and had travelled to the beach for a century, implored the board to shut down the request. 

“Whenever you or the aldermen say no to something, you’re saying yes to something else,” he told the board. “And I’m asking you to say yes to what we’ve had going on here, which is a great thing.”

After a handful of residents opposed to the measure spoke out, Franck made another pitch, emphasizing the equal access argument. 

“The [Coastal Area Management Act] land use plan calls for you to provide or adopt regulation that allows for the provision of basic services and equipment to visitors and residents alike,” Franck said. 

The planning board acknowledged such a need, but that did not stop them from giving a thumbs down to the application. As board members discussed the possibility that town leaders could take additional months to resolve the application, Rhodes looked down and shook his head in the audience rows of town hall. 

“We have to do what’s best for the town,” said planning board chairman Jim Smith, after reading the unfavorable motion into the record. “I’m sorry but we can’t please everybody.”

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