By John Morton
It was in the spring of 2021 when Sgt. Arik Smith, the former leader of the Siesta Key substation of the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office, issued a definitive ruling on the debate regarding electric bicycles on county beaches. They are illegal.
The issue had been somewhat convoluted, seeing as motorized vehicles are allowed for maintenance/service personnel and law enforcement, and electric wheelchairs are also allowed for those in need of assistance.
But the e-bikes, which were rising in popularity and a growing presence on the beach, were officially banned. Section 130-37 of the county’s municipal code addresses the matter, with a fine up to $500 and/or imprisonment in the county jail up to 60 days.
Still, a problem persists on Siesta Key and a particular business appears to be playing a big role in it.
An entity called Endless Summer Eco Tours and Rentals continues to offer a “Siesta Key Sunset Tour” on the web, where riders pay between $60 and $67 to join a group that travels on electric bikes from the Point of Rocks toward the north end of the Key. Participants meet at Christopher Wheeler Park, 1310 Old Stickney Point Rd., for a guided two-hour outing with a 7 p.m. departure time.
Online reviews of the service include some as recent as early August. On Aug. 8, the online tour description found on Endless Summer’s webpage and several booking sites continued to describe the tour as powered by e-bikes that go up to 20 mph.
Also, the business continues to distribute promotional material on the Key that highlights the e-bikes beach tour. Catherine Luckner, president of the Siesta Key Association, said the manager of Siesta Royale of recently delivered to her a stack of brochures as evidence of the ongoing operation.
The advertisement notes at the bottom that the company’s e-bikes go up to 20 mph — certainly giving the impression that a rider could go that fast on Siesta Key’s beaches.
“We’ve received dozens of complaints from our residents,” Luckner said of the e-bikes, which often cruise along the beach in packs as large as 20 or 30 riders. “People don’t even hear them coming and it’s overwhelming. People are out on the beach for the sunset and suddenly all these bikes are on top of them. They often need to jump out of the way. They are all trying to share that little strip of hard sand along the water.”
A reaction that potentially points to a start toward a crackdown on the illegal e-bikes occurred in July, when a resident of the Crystal Sands condo photographed on the evening of July 18 a pack of e-bike riders traveling along the public beach. Second in the line of riders is an Endless Summer employee wearing the company logo on his shirt. His likeness and shirt also match photos on the company’s website — it’s unmistakably the same person.
The resident sent the photo to the Sarasota County Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources staff, who then shared it with law enforcement and also the Siesta Key Association in hopes that the civic group would reach out to e-bike-related businesses in an effort to address the problem.
“That was hopefully a good sign of things to come,” Luckner said of the citizen’s report.
Non-motorized bicycles are indeed allowed on the beach but must be walked at the public beach between the four lifeguard stations. As for the e-bikes, which again are illegal anywhere on the beach when used in motorized form, the challenge of detecting them in electric mode makes enforcement tricky. Oftentimes, if a rider sees an officer they begin pedaling to cover-up what they were doing.
“That’s what makes it so hard, and deputies can’t just stand out there all day and look to see if someone is pedaling or not,” Luckner said. “That’s why I’m so happy someone reported this.”
When contacted on Aug. 8, Endless Summer owner Derek Wilson said he had no knowledge that promotional material was still being distributed on Siesta Key. He also said the last time law enforcement contacted him about the e-bike ban was in the spring of 2021, when he said he subsequently removed the motors and throttles on several of his e-bikes. His beach tours do continue in a non-motorized form, he said, at the same price.
“The change has turned off a lot of people, but we’re still getting some,” he said. “The price is the same because our costs are no lower.”
Wilson began his business in 2018 and it is now located in Sarasota. He not only organizes rental tours but rents e-bikes for general use. He also sells and repairs them.
Despite the modifications, Wilson then said those altered e-bikes still feature an “electric assistance element” that can bring the bike up to 6 or 7 mph, and then a rider must pedal to reach what he believes is an 11-mph speed limit on the beach.
“That falls within compliance of the codes that were given to me,” he said.
However, the municipal code does not support that notion. It clearly states that use of an e-bike in electronic mode is prohibited., with no mention of a speed limit.
That said, an open records search through the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office showed no citations for violations in relation to Wilson’s ongoing operation on Siesta Key.
As for promotional websites, Wilson said the only ones with which he a contract for the marketing and booking of his beach tours are Airbnb.com and Viator.com, the latter of which is part of TripAdvisor. However, an online search shows several more options. All of them, including the two sites he authorizes, on Aug. 8 still described his tour as using e-bikes that go up to 20 mph.
His business’ online page (endlesssummersrq.com) did the same.
“I should go through it and update it,” Wilson said. “But very few people find our website organically. That’s why I use the tourism sites.”
On Aug. 9, his two authorized marketing sites, as well as his own, no longer mentioned that his e-bikes go as fast as 20 mph. There was no mention of speed at all, but he still described them as e-bikes as far as the beach tour is concerned.
Meanwhile, Siesta Key substation leader Sgt. Dan Smith told the Siesta Key Association earlier this year that working with the local vendors on educating e-bike renters has been an ongoing mission of the Sheriff’s Office.
Three local businesses on the island rent e-bikes, and all report they take measures to inform users that they’re not permitted on the beach.
One is Siesta Key Bike & Kayak, 1224 Old Stickney Point Rd. The business’ website notes the following, in bold letters, in its e-bikes information section: SORRY, NO RIDING E-BIKES ON THE BEACH. Its e-bikes have top speeds between 22 and 27 mph.
Ride & Paddle by Siesta Sports Rentals, 6651 Midnight Pass Rd., notes on its website that e-bikes are for “street-use only.” Its e-bikes have a top speed of 15 or 16 mph.
Robin Hood Rentals, 5255 Ocean Blvd., also rents e-bikes but makes no reference to them on its website. However, a staff member reported that the business does inform renters of the ban on the beach. Its bikes reach a maximum speed of 20 mph.
Different classes of e-bikes feature different speeds. The maximum speed allowed is 28 mph in Florida for a Class-3 e-bike. Some e-bikes are reported to go as fast as 45 mph, but none of the Siesta Key vendors carries such models.