In 2008 and into early 2009, Hilton Head Island was reeling from a series of violent, late-night incidents at local nightspots.
The town's answer was a one-two punch of a 3 a.m. closing time for bars and restaurants serving alcohol and an ordinance that allowed the town to suspend or revoke the business licenses of those determined to be a nuisance. The Beaufort County Sheriff's Office, which had pushed for the earlier closing time, also increased patrols in the busiest, most trouble-prone areas.
Business owners got the message. They beefed up security, improved lighting and generally got their act together. Just one business has been shut down under the nuisance ordinance, and that was in 2010. Another recently has been warned due to the number of times deputies have been called to the club. The owners say they are responding to complaints by turning down the music, installing cameras and increasing security.
Sheriff P.J. Tanner wants to expand these tactics to unincorporated Beaufort County, and County Council should listen to him. His request again is prompted by violence and frequent calls for service. He points to a club called Midnight Soul Patrol on St. Helena Island, where two men were killed and two others wounded June 21.
Beaufort County Codes Enforcement now can only revoke a license if the business violates county, state or federal law. Criminal activity by the business license-holder can be grounds to revoke a license, but criminal activity that happens on site but outside the establishment or by patrons is not.
A county nuisance ordinance, if modeled after Hilton Head's, could offer a means to deal with businesses that are magnets for trouble, while providing business owners with due process and an opportunity to get matters under control before they are penalized.
Under the town's ordinance, law enforcement officials present information about a business to the town manager. The town manager can declare the business a nuisance and require the owner or landlord to fix the problem within 30 days. Potential remedies include hiring private security, removing debris or improving lighting.
If the property or business owners disagree with the nuisance determination, they can appeal within 10 days to Town Council. If still not satisfied, they can appeal to Circuit Court.
At any point in the process, the town manager can suspend the business license, automatically triggering a revocation hearing before Town Council.
The 3 a.m. closing time was a compromise, aimed to help businesses that cater to food-and-beverage workers who don't get off until very late. State law prohibits bars from pouring liquor after 2 a.m., but beer and wine can be served around the clock unless a county or municipality puts a stricter ordinance in place. Bars on Hilton Head are required to stop selling alcohol or allowing on-premise consumption between 3 a.m. and 6 a.m.
Tanner had wanted a 2 a.m. closing time, following the example of other South Carolina communities, including Charleston.
Tanner is again asking for a 2 a.m. closing time, and County Council should hear him out on that, too.
No one solution will address every situation, but the county would do well to give the Sheriff's Office the tools deputies have available on Hilton Head to prevent problems, as well as punish after the fact.