Frustrated by drunken revelers using its parking lot, Riverbanks Zoo and Garden next week will begin work on a fence that will cut off easy public access to a popular section of the Saluda River.
“This is absolutely the extreme last option,” said Satch Krantz, Riverbanks’ executive director. “This doesn’t make us happy to do this, but everything we have tried to do to control the foolishness in our parking lot has failed.”
One evening last week, Krantz said, he had to break up a parking lot fight when he was leaving work. “Two women were slugging it out in bikinis behind my pickup truck because one of them had lost their car keys,” he said.
The new chainlink fence will connect to the zoo’s current perimeter fence just west of where it runs under the pedestrian walkway over the river. The fence will enclose the picnic area – cutting off that area from the river – and then run around the west end of the zoo’s parking lot.
Kayakers, anglers and people who simply want to hang out on the river rocks have parked in that area for decades and followed dirt paths to the water. While the fence will have a gate near those paths, it will be locked and opened only for commercial outfitters who contract with the zoo and for emergency personnel. Adventure Carolina, Palmetto Outdoors and Get Your Gear On currently have contracts allowing access in return for a $3 per person payment to the zoo.
The revenue from outfitters doesn’t cover even one-fifth of the additional cost of security upgrades in the parking lot in recent years, Krantz said.
On most weekends and holidays, the east end of the parking lot will be open, allowing access to another popular section of the river just downstream of the zoo. Upstream of the zoo, many people now park (often illegally) along Candi Lane west of the zoo and walk (illegally across railroad tracks with no pedestrian crossings) to the river.
But more people have accessed the river through the west end of the zoo parking lot than any other place in recent years. After this weekend, they’ll be shut out.
“It’s disappointing,” said Congaree Riverkeeper Bill Stangler, whose organization deals with water quality and access issues on the Congaree, Saluda and Broad rivers in the region. “We’ve tried again and again to work with the zoo on alternatives, but the zoo has decided rather than to build relationships they want to build fences.”
The next legal public access point upstream from the zoo, commonly called Gardendale Landing, is about three miles upstream off Bush River Road. It’s a long trip downstream from Gardendale, five or six miles, to the next public takeout point at the Gervais Street bridge.
One major plus of the zoo access is that it allows kayakers or tubers to get in the river below the dangerous Millrace Rapids. Stangler is worried about the safety of people who now will decide to get on the river upstream of Millrace.
The problems in the zoo parking lot have been escalating in recent years, Krantz said. The crowd that hangs out on the large rocks along the river has gone from mostly laidback a decade ago to dangerously drunk and violent recently. At the same time, the number of tubers on the river and walking through the parking lot has exploded, and the attendance at the zoo has jumped to an annual average of above 1 million.
“Over the course of the past few years, what we call revelers have basically run off kayakers and fishermen,” Krantz said.
Video surveillance cameras installed in the parking lot last year cut down on auto break-ins but had little impact on general rowdiness. Krantz said a video last week from one of the cameras showed a motorcycle driven through the parking lot at high speeds barely missing a zoo employee.
Columbia police come out to the zoo parking lot often, but they haven’t had enough of a presence in the area to discourage revelers, Krantz said.
Police chief Randy Scott denied that the problems in the zoo parking lot have been extraordinary, but he did say the landscape makes it difficult to patrol. Most of the drinking and carousing is done by people on the edge of the river, far from the parking lot. He suspects the fence will improve conditions in the parking lot but night not reduce problems on the river.
Krantz and Stangler agree that the long-range answer to the access problem is the long-delayed construction of the Three Rivers Greenway section around the zoo. About $7.9 million for the Saluda greenway section and other associated pedestrian projects was added to Richland County’s penny sales tax proposal during final negotiations this month on the tax.
The greenway would include parking areas and a paved walkway, which would run between the zoo’s current perimeter fence and the river. Those amenities have made it easier for police to patrol river areas along greenway sections already built in Columbia, West Columbia and Cayce.
Even if the tax increase is approved by voters, building the greenway will take several years, Stangler said. In the meantime, people who want to get on the river west of the zoo will face major challenges.
Map: New fencing planned for Riverbanks Zoo
New fencing announced Wednesday by Riverbanks Zoo and Garden will restrict access to the west parking and picnic area from the Saluda River. This map shows the rough pathway of the new fencing (blue line) and the location of the picnic area (blue marker).View New fencing at Riverbanks Zoo and Garden in a larger map