County to develop task force to consider commercial boating at public accesses

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By ChrisAnn Allen

They decided it required a “deeper dive.”
During their Oct. 24 meeting, members of the Sarasota Board of County Commissioners reached a consensus to pause and consider the best way to handle commercial boating businesses — such as charter fishing, tour boats and scuba diving — using county recreational water accesses as points for loading and unloading clients.
On Siesta Key, Turtle Beach Park on Midnight Pass Road and Nora Patterson Bay Island Park on Siesta Drive are examples of such locales.

Nora Patterson Bay Island Park, along Siesta Drive near Siesta Key’s north bridge, is a focal point for issues with tourism-related businesses using waterfront county parks to pick up and drop off customers. (photo by David Geyer)

This comes on the heels of the county’s Department of Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources researching and possibly developing a permit program for such commercial boating businesses. However, commissioners determined it would be difficult to regulate and the parks do not have enough parking to support such a program.
Nicole Rissler, the department’s director, gave a presentation requesting an amendment to the county code due to an increase in unauthorized use of these water access points and asked the commission for updated language delegating authority to the county administrator or designee to issue and change fees associated with this use.
While charter fishing businesses are subject to the proposal, it does not include commercial fishing boats, such as ones which provide wholesale seafood. Those are exempt through a separate section of the county code.
“This is clarifying language,” Rissler said. “Right now, today, our county code in Chapter 90 prohibits commercial activity from occurring in our parks. So, what we are proposing to change today does not affect that this activity already is prohibited within our parks.”
Rissler also said she has heard people saying that the county is trying to regulate commercial businesses launching from the boat ramps. “That is untrue,” she said, adding that it does not regulate the types of vessels launching from the ramps but doing business in county parks without a permit is currently prohibited.
Lastly, she said that even if there was a permit program allowing this type of use, the recipient would still have to possess a business-use permit and, to operate in the Marine Park District, it must have an “abutting lease” which means a slip at a marina in the district or some other type of ownership within that district.
A concerned District 3 Commissioner Neil Rainford said charter fishing, tour boats, and other water recreation activities bring tourism to Sarasota County that affects all branches of the industry, including restaurants and vacation rentals. “I think the unintended consequences might be significant,” he said.
Rissler responded, “This is not just about fishing charters. This is across the board … You can’t operate a business without a permit in our parks.”

Business owners make their case
During public comment, Robert Breton, known as “Captain Bob” of Serenity Offshore Fishing Charters, was one of several dozen people in the gallery opposing the proposed amendment. He said there are almost no other options or charter boats to launch, other than county parks. He suggested that there should be a permit program attached to the county charter fishing license.
“That way, each charter could be dealt with differently, and you’d be able to keep track of what’s going on with that,” Breton said.
He also asked the enforcement be halted as tourist season is starting and with it comes business for charter fishing and tour boat operations.
Claire Kobza, who owns Low Tide Tours with her husband, Jason, said they’ve been running their business since 2020 on Siesta Key. Initially they operated out of Bayfront Yacht Works and Marina near the south end, but a change in management led them to pursue other options. She said, with only one other marina on Siesta Key, they chose to use Nora Patterson Park to pick up and drop off clients.
“Many of these companies have endured years of hard work to build a Siesta Key customer base and this decision could possibly take away all of our livelihoods,” she said. “The amendment will not only affect charter boats but instead create a ripple effect.”

Claire Kobza of Low Tide Tours addresses the Sarasota County commissioners. After starting at the south end of Siesta Key on private property, the operation has moved to the county’s Nora Patterson Park to pick up and drop off customers. (meeting screenshot, web photo)

She added that they direct clients to use transport services such as Uber and the Frog Hop, another local business, so they don’t park onsite.
“Eliminating this will also eliminate numerous jobs,” Kobza said. “Not just within our company, but everyone that’s here, and then the ones that aren’t here because they’re out trying to fight for that extra dollar that they need to make today, in fear that they’re not going to have a business.”
Capt. Michael Pines, also with Low Tide Tours, pointed out that their business, along with other, similar pleasure trips, does not actually do business in the park – rather, money is changing hands through online booking. “The signs there say ‘Drop off and pick up only.’ We are dropping off and picking up only,” he said.
Capt. Matt Fueyo of Reel Tight Fishing Charters out of Siesta Key asked what the reason was for the sudden enforcement and bemoaned the possibility of a $500 fine, or worse, 60 days in jail.
“Imagine 60 days in jail for just trying to put food on your family’s table,” he said. “Imagine 60 days in jail for being an entrepreneur in a small, tourism-based town. Wow. Unbelievable.”
Fueyo offered several possible solutions to the issue, including paid parking at the waterfront accesses, proof of licensure to operate out of a county park, or possibly establishing another county location for commercial boating businesses to provide drop off and pick up.
“Now that there’s development, the infrastructure just can’t keep up with it,” he said. “So, now all of a sudden, it’s a problem. So, I think we do need to come up with solutions to the problems and not put all of these people out of business.”
Cliff VandenBosch, a Sarasota resident for 20 years, said the passing of this amendment will have a severe effect on every business associated with tourism in the county.
“How many tourists plan their vacations around fishing and boating in our county? And this includes shopping, vacation stays, as well as the charters they’ve come to enjoy,” he said. “These ramps and access areas have to be available to continue an industry as it has operated for decades without any permits. How much revenue will we lose? Our county will lose hundreds of charters overnight if you folks pass this proposed amendment.”

The board responds
Rainford said it was a fishing trip that first brought him to Sarasota. He said that the businesses leaving and returning from the water accesses are not renting or selling anything at that location and that these business owners are taxpayers and members of the community.

Rainford

“At the end of the day, they’re a community member and I think I’ve heard you loud and clear, and I think we need to protect our charter captains,” he said.
A task force to look at current regulations and those which might be implemented, as well as a “critical look at the Marine Park District,” would be the next steps moving forward, Rainford added.
District 1 Commissioner Mike Moran said he came to Sarasota in his childhood for charter fishing.
“I think the basics of this is just honest, hard-working people trying to make a living,” he said. However, he pointed out that staff was just carrying out policy created by the board, so they should not be the target of this issue of “private, commercial businesses operating from public land.”
He concluded by saying he would support a “pause” on moving forward with enforcement while the board and staff determine the best way to address the situation, while possibly instituting a pilot program to come up with a long-term solution.
District 4 Commissioner Joe Neunder asked Rissler if it is correct that the affected businesses are not participating legally under the current code, to which she responded, according to code, they cannot do commercial business in the parks without a permit, and there is not a permitting program that includes the Marine Park District, adding that businesses with slips or similar in a marina are likely operating within the code.
Neunder said, “This is a very complicated question, but at the same time, this is something that has not been permissible in our ordinance for a long time and personally, you should know that,” adding, “actions have consequences.”
However, he agreed there should be a break in enforcement while staff determines the best course of action.
“We need to look into this further,” District 2 Commissioner Mark Smith said, citing a shortage of boat ramps in the county. “We have the same number of boat ramps as when my family moved here in ‘63.”
He said the commission has been focusing on purchasing waterfront property, which could create more accesses. “We have to find a way to work with these businesses and make it all legal,” he said.
District 5 Commissioner Ron Cutsinger said he has “nothing but respect” for the struggle faced by the commercial businesses, and agreed the situation is “really challenging,” but operating businesses on county property sets a precedent and expenses, such as permitting, are part of operating any business.
Cutsinger also agreed on stopping enforcement until a task force can take a “deeper dive.”
County Administrator Jonathan Lewis said staff will start working on the matter and will bring it back to the commission in early 2024.
Smith suggested suspending fines. Rissler said since the state attorney threw out a previous citation, staff had not been issuing fines until the language was addressed by the commission.
“These folks have been working hard and making a living,” Smith said. “Perhaps they didn’t follow all the rules, but until we get a handle on it, I sure the heck don’t want to see these folks getting fined every day or thrown in jail because of this.”
In lieu of a motion, the commission reached a consensus for Lewis to bring back a list of options, including a task force and consideration of the Marine Park District, at a future meeting.
No fines will be issued in the meantime.

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