Beaufort News

Beaufort seeks SC attorney general's opinion on possible horse-carriage monopoly

Tourists get out of a Sea Island Carriage Co. carriage Thursday in the parking lot of the Downtown Marina, while Southurn Rose Carriage arrives to prepare for a tour.
Tourists get out of a Sea Island Carriage Co. carriage Thursday in the parking lot of the Downtown Marina, while Southurn Rose Carriage arrives to prepare for a tour. Jonathan Dyer/The Beaufort Gazette

City Council members generally agree that the bickering and fierce competition between Beaufort's two horse-drawn carriage tour operators will continue as long as more than one company is allowed to operate at a time.

One member now wants the S.C. attorney general's opinion on whether the city could eliminate the competition and award a license to only one company.

Councilman Mike Sutton asked that staff seek the opinion during a workshop this week.

"We made some changes last year to see if the two companies could (co-exist) more peacefully," Sutton said. "I think the changes solved a lot, but not 100 percent, because a lot of it is personality driven. We'll never fix that."

The city currently allows two carriage companies to operate and puts the spots up for bid every five years. The current contracts expire later this year.

The tour companies each pay about $26,000 annually, plus a business license fee, for one of the slots.

Sutton said he doesn't know exactly how a one-carriage operator system would work, but said it's worth some consideration.

Disputes among carriage operators are nothing new -- they date back more than a decade.

In 1996, Beaufort sought an opinion from city attorney Bill Harvey about whether the city could grant an exclusive franchise for horse-drawn carriage service within the city's historic district.

Harvey advised against it then and said he knows of nothing that has happened since that would change his opinion.

In his 1996 opinion, Harvey, who still serves as the city attorney, wrote that no law in South Carolina explicitly prohibits the granting of an exclusive franchise.

However McQuillin's Municipal Corporations, an authority on municipal law, said a municipality has "no power to grant to a public service corporation an exclusive franchise to use the streets, unless the power... has been delegated to it by the legislature."

Harvey wrote that the city would be venturing into a "questionable area" if it attempted to give one carriage company an exclusive franchise.

"It is almost certain that such action would result in litigation which could result in substantial damages and attorney's fees," he wrote.

Peter White, co-owner of Southurn Rose Buggy Tours, one of the city's two carriage operators, said he and his wife, Rose, thinks a one-company system would benefit the city.

The change would eliminate disputes over horse-waste cleanup and ticket-sales protocol. Also, a single company could send out fewer carriages every day, potentially lessening the burden on city infrastructure and residents who live along the tour route, he said.

"The way it's running now, you need all the people you can get," White said. "With one company, you could get enough customers easily and there wouldn't be a dire need to run on inclement days or as early and as late as possible."

Walter Gay, owner of Sea Island Carriages, the city's other carriage company, disagrees and called a one-operator system a "terrible idea."

"If you take away the competition, one company will have a complete monopoly," Gay said. "Prices are going to go up and service is going to go down."

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