Tensions are rising on Hilton Head Island over the commercial use of public boat landings during the busy summer months.
Although a handful of kayak tours and charter fishermen have long used the landings to begin and end their trips, some now say the practice is exploding with "dozens and dozens" of businesses now calling the docks home.
And because these companies avoid marina commissions and fees, some competitors claim they're taking unfair advantage.
"They are receiving a huge financial benefit at the cost of county taxpayers, and they are competing on unfair financial footing from those of us who are doing it the right way," said Keith Walston, CEO of Vagabond Cruises, which launches from a Harbour Town Yacht Basin.
Some tour operators acknowledge they launch from the public landings, saying they're able to save 20 percent or more by not using a marina. They also claim county codes allow it.
"They are worried about us because we are their competition," said charter boat operator Walter Hancock. "I suggest if they don't like competition, that maybe they move to a communist regime."
THE RISE OF 'FREELANCERS'
For many years, tourist-based business such as parasailing outfitters, charter fishermen and sightseeing cruises operated solely from marinas, Walston said. The marinas sold them gas and other services and earned a share of the companies' annual receipts. This provided an incentive to refer customers to the excursion companies.
More recently, some began to "freelance" watersports businesses to supplement incomes or start a second career, Walston said.
County rules around public boat landings are clear in some areas and murky in others. Users can't monopolize the boat launch or block access to it. Vehicles also can't be parked there for more than 48 hours. The code says "oystermen, crabbers, other commercial fishermen, and other commercial users" may use the county's public landings to launch and unload their boats.
Rules for kayak and watersports companies are less clear.
And nobody is supposed to be paid for services at the boat landings, according to county attorney Josh Gruber.
Enforcement, however, is another story.
"The issue then becomes, are we to have someone who sits at the county boat landing all day with a pair of binoculars watching if someone gives money to someone else?" he said.
According to Gruber, the issue is confined to boat landings on Hilton Head.
'SORT OUT THE ISSUES'
Brooke McCullough, who owns H2O Water Sports and UFO Parasailing on Hilton Head, says operating from a marina costs more. But it also has a host of mandates on vessel maintenance, licensing rules, minimum insurance policies and random drug tests that benefit customers.
He believes not everyone operating from the boat landings follows those strictures, and suggests the county faces legal liability if an outfitter using the county docks has an accident.
"They are just trying to operate on the cheap, and they are getting away with it," McCullough said of businesses that operate from the boat ramps.
Not everyone agrees.
Matt Williams, owner of Palmetto Bay Parasail, says most operators can show proof of insurance, Coast Guard licensing and participate in random drug test just as their marina competitors do.
As a former marina customer, he told County Council earlier this month that it's hard as an owner operator to make a living when a marina takes between 17 and 22 percent of gross sales as commission.
"Instead of maybe outlawing commercial use on public docks, I would maybe propose you regulate the professionals that are there providing excellent service to the tourists that visit ... Hilton Head," he said.
It's not clear if the issue will lead to County Council action. Nothing has been proposed.
Councilman Rick Caporale, who represents part of Hilton Head, says it's hard to know what's going on without witnessing it firsthand. He suggests stationing sheriff's deputies at the docks to learn more.
"It probably wouldn't take long to sort out the issues or identify the culprits," he said.
Follow reporter Casey Conley at twitter.com/IPBG_Casey.