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Kayak companies try to stay afloat in wake of city regulations

By Ruben Lowman

After North Myrtle Beach City Council passed a “housekeeping” ordinance on Monday night that allows commercial activity to take place at the city’s parks and public facilities, several owners of kayak companies voiced their opposition to recent regulations brought by the city. 

The ordinance, labeled a housekeeping measure by NMB city manager Mike Mahaney, allows for the city to engage in commercial partnerships on city property, which would allow the kayak companies to begin conducting normal business out of the Cherry Grove Boat Ramp. Mahaney said six of the tour companies were to receive contract offers after the meeting, but several owners of the kayak companies spoke out against recent regulations they see as invasive and threatening their continued ability to operate their small businesses. 

“The 10 percent and the regulations together is too much,” said Wyatt Todd, owner of Kokopelli Surf Camp, Paddleboard and Kayak Tours. “I don’t have time to make proper business plans in order to adjust to the changes they want to enforce in less than a month.”

Justin Summerall, owner of J&L Kayaks, said that as his business exists on thin profit margins already, the city’s new 10 percent ‘boat ramp tax’ would essentially eliminate half of his income. At the more than two-hour meeting, city officials, residents and business owners discussed the recent ordinances passed by council, which centered on the kayaks and their use of the boat landing going forward. A second boat ramp is in the midst of being built at the landing for commercial businesses to operate out of. 

The kayak companies operate guided ecotourism tours through the saltwater marshes of Cherry Grove that launch out of the boat ramp on 53rd Avenue North, adjacent to Heritage Shores Nature Preserve. The city has been implementing measures recently to curb the overall amount of companies that use the boat ramp, as well as placing limitations and uniform regulations on the way the businesses operate. 

As North Myrtle Beach has seen an increasing influx of people moving to the area, congestion has become a common occurrence at many places throughout the city. The boat ramp has become one of them. Add in the effects of the pandemic and people wanting to get outside more when restrictions began to be lifted, coinciding with an increasing number of flounder fishermen coming down to local waters from North Carolina, where catching the fish was made illegal a few years ago. 

In explaining the ordinance’s origins, Todd said the issues with the kayak companies have come from nearby homeowners, fishermen and boaters. He said that many of their problems with the kayak companies do not have any legal standing, they are just general complaints about the overall congestion at the ramp. 

City officials have contended that there needs to be control over the companies, and the congestion caused by kayaks has become a problem for residents and recreational users of the boat landing. 

“We’re trying to strike a balance for everyone,” Mayor Marilyn Hatley said. “Give us time and you will be pleased with what’s happening. The parking fees and business fees will more than pay for the new ramp.”

The second ramp, which Mahaney said will cost around $40,000 when completed, is approximately one-tenth of the overall city spend on the infrastructure at the boat landing to increase parking and improve the public’s access to use it. Mahaney asserted that everyone who uses the boat landing will have to pay for parking. 

“Every vehicle, even those with boats, will have to pay $2 an hour to park there. We’re trying to accommodate everyone, fishermen with boats, those who fish from the dock, recreational and commercial kayaks,” Mahaney said. 

Some residents voiced concerns that the ordinance was rushed through without proper input from the public and that the city was attempting to create a commercial zone out of a public park. Chris Noury, city attorney, said that the proposed ordinance was appropriately vetted and advertised in order to proceed. The measure was passed by planning commission at their previous meeting. 

The “boat ramp tax” of 10 percent is the most contentious aspect of the ordinances. Several owners have said that it will create logistical nightmares for them right as the summer season is beginning, and they are unsure if they will be able to even continue past this year. The fee will apply to all of their gross revenue generated from the boat landing in Cherry Grove. The rate was seven percent until a workshop in February, where it was increased with little discussion from city officials.  

Todd said he feels as though the city is making an arbitrary decision and proceeding with it with little discussion because they feel they can. He said that he and other kayak company owners have offered to compromise and come to another solution with the city, even sending city officials multiple five-page letters detailing in-depth the issues surrounding the boat ramp. Todd said that so far he has not received a response, only getting acknowledgement of receiving them from two councilmembers. 

In addition, Todd said he feels like the kayak companies, in particular the older ones, are being scapegoated for a problem that isn’t their fault. He said the congestion at the boat ramp has coincided with an overall increase in population that is the result of development in the city and surrounding area and has  very little to do with the kayak companies.

As a result, he feels like they are being unfairly targeted, and he says that city officials have not been receptive to any input from the owners of the companies, which includes councilmember Jay Baldwin, who owns Great Escapes. Baldwin recused himself from the votes because of his ownership of the company. Some of the newer companies do not follow proper protocol and do not have uniform business practices, Todd said, which has contributed to the problem. 

Hatley said that the ordinance was not just for the boat landing and the kayak companies. She said it will be in effect on every park and facility in North Myrtle Beach, and mentioned that recreational sports and classes in city facilities charge fees to participate in, as well. Hatley said the second ramp they are building will mean improved public access to the park and boat landing. 

“The 10% fee is not negotiable,” Mahaney said. 

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