Beaufort County Council members have spent the past six months trying to understand both the positive and negative implications of a countywide plastic bag ban.
They have held numerous public hearings in each municipality across the county and invited residents, businessmen, environmentalists, local leaders and plastic bag industry advocates to attend.
City of Beaufort Mayor Billy Keyserling said it was one of the “most extensive and progressive outreach programs of all time.”
But after months of work, the county’s plastic bag ban ordinance, which was passed Monday night, may never go into effect.
Because of a legal issue regarding an amendment added by the Town of Bluffton that would allow restaurants to provide customers with “doggie bags” for their leftovers.
County Council’s ordinance states that it would take effect eight months after the last municipality adopts “the same or a substantially similar ordinance.”
Beaufort County assistant attorney Chris Inglese told the council at Monday’s meeting that Bluffton’s ordinance would be “substantially different” from the county’s if the amendment was adopted. Therefore, it would prohibit the county’s ordinance from taking effect until changes were made.
County Councilman Brian Flewelling, who has been one of the driving forces behind the ordinance, took the most issue with Bluffton’s change.
“I’ve been down the river on this and I’ve been across the river, and I’ve been all over the place on this. I’ve worked very hard to get this, and it seems like to me that the Town of Bluffton is introducing a substantial amendment — a substantial difference — and it should nullify this entire proceeding,” Flewelling said.
Bluffton Mayor Lisa Sulka said that an amendment was not added. Instead, she says, “we just clarified the definition.”
Four exemptions are included in the county’s ordinance — laundry dry cleaning bags and newspaper bags, bags used by pharmacists or veterinarians for prescription drugs, bags that customers bring into stores themselves, and bags used by a customer inside a business establishment to contain items such as produce, nuts and “unwrapped prepared foods” such as baked goods.
The last exemption of “unwrapped prepared foods” was the vague language that Bluffton Town Council wanted to clarify so that the Bluffton Police Department could properly enforce the ordinance, Sulka said.
Bluffton Town Council voted to clarify the definition by adding language to allow customers to take the uneaten portions of their meals home in a “doggie bag.” County councilmen, however, did not intend for “unwrapped prepared foods” to include food taken home in “doggie bags,” they agreed Monday.
According to Bluffton Town Councilman Larry Toomer, the changes were made after concerns were raised by local residents. But the exact wording is a “work in progress” and will not be finalized until the second reading at Town Council’s Feb. 13 meeting, he said.
“We’re in favor or passing it (the plastic bag ban ordinance), but the definition in there for what was exempt or not was too vague,” Toomer said.
Town Councilman Dan Wood addressed the same concerns, but said he didn’t want the amendment to be “a deal breaker.”
“If I knew from a legal perspective that this was going to torpedo the progress made by the county and other municipalities, then I’d say we need to take a step back and look at what is proposed,” Wood said.
Bluffton’s Deputy Town Manager Scott Marshall represented the town at Monday’s County Council meeting.
“It was obvious what County Council’s position on the amendment was, so now they (Town Council) will have to factor it into their decision-making process when they consider second reading,” Marshall said.
As of Tuesday morning, Marshall said he had not yet had a chance to talk with the town’s attorney to determine if he agreed that the amendment was a “substantial” difference from the county’s ordinance.
Hilton Head Town Council passed its plastic bag ban ordinance on Jan. 9. The Town of Port Royal is expected to pass its ordinance in February.
Keyserling, who encouraged County Council to pass their ordinance Monday night, said he expected the City of Beaufort to pass the ordinance at Tuesday night’s meeting.
About the County’s bag ban ordinance
Beaufort County’s plastic bag ban will prohibit all business establishments on the island from providing customers with single-use plastic bags.
As it is currently written, the ordinance will go into effect eight months after the last municipality passes its ordinance.
Any business establishment that violates the ordinance would face a penalty up to $100 for a first violation; $200 for a second violation within any 12-month period; and $500 for each additional violation within any 12-month period.