Group asked to solve issue of commercial activity at public water access points

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By ChrisAnn Allen

Both sides have spoken and it’s time for action.
The Sarasota Board of County Commissioners on Jan. 30 unanimously approved a motion to create a task force to consider the best way to handle commercial boating businesses — such as charter fishing, tour boats, and scuba diving — in light of some businesses of that nature using public access points for pick-up and drop-off.
The two county parks on Siesta Key with such offerings are at Nora Patterson Bay Island Park near the north bridge and Turtle Beach Park at the south end.

Nora Patterson Bay Island Park. (photo by David Geyer)

According to a motion by District 3 commissioner Neil Rainford, the task force will consist of two charter tour operators who can provide local business tax receipts, two water access/marina property owners or lease holders with a tour operator business with land abutting the Marine Park District, and one member at-large.
This means two members will represent businesses operating out of county parks and two will be owner/operators using privately owned marinas — and this is the dividing line within the issue.
During public comment, representatives from both sides provided feedback on the matter.
Capt. Scott Tesinsky, owner of Sarasota Family Fishing Charters, said fishing operations have been using the public ramps to pick up and drop off clients for “generations,” and asserted private marina availability is very limited. He said no business is conducted at the ramps; rather, it is just the spot for departure and return.
“I ask that you work with us to try to find a solution, where we can continue to do what we do,” he said. “My livelihood is at stake and, honestly, what we do is literally just pick up someone and that’s it.”
He added the area has increased in tourism in the 25 years he has lived in the county, and the water recreations activities are the draw. “We are a water community,” Tesinsky said. “Without the water, the people wouldn’t be here.”
Brandon Paonessa, a permitted jet ski business operator, also spoke on the matter. However, he expressed concern over the lack of action by the county to enforce rules regarding commercial operations at public accesses.
“Sarasota County code enforcement does not enforce their own ordinances and laws, hence allowing any bro with a jet ski, trailer and credit card processor able to run their business at the park with no cost,” he said, adding that anyone legitimately starting a business must have a plan that incorporates costs such as permitting, insurance and leases. He also said there are eight jet ski rental business websites which can be found through Google that list county parks as their place of business.
Following an uptick in unauthorized use of the parks by unpermitted businesses in 2022, the commission directed staff to research a permit program for such businesses and, in late 2023, the board opted to allow the activity to continue unenforced until staff could present a plan for a task force. Currently, if enforced, a violator could be fined $500 per day or spend 30 days in jail. Considering the activities had been in progress for decades without enforcement and that private marina spots are at a premium, the commission felt the punishment outweighed the crime and opted to continue the pause in enforcement until a new plan could be developed.
However, some business owners operating within the current legal parameters say it is unfair to allow unpermitted businesses to operate in the same market.
“The amount of commercial activity at county parks has become an overwhelming situation for the county to enforce, which is creating an environment where the inmates are now running the asylum,” Paonessa said. “They have defeated the rule of the law by strength in numbers and relentless perseverance.”
Similarly, Richard Campbell, owner of Siesta Key Aqua Adventures, a boat tour company, said in 2019 a circuit court judge ordered him to obtain a business use permit at a valid leasehold commercial interest property directly abutting the Marine Park District or cease and desist all commercial activity within the district. He was given 30 days to come into compliance, which he did at a cost of $120,000.
“I’ve got commercial slips for rent,” he said. “I don’t have any phone calls. No one is calling to rent my spaces that I’ve paid for because the county doesn’t make them.”

Commission response
During the meeting, District 4 commissioner Joe Neunder said he is “sympathetic” to the business owners who have been using the public parks for access as it has been done for decades, but is aware a change must be made.

Neunder

“I am a private business owner,” he said. “However, I want to be very clear and I’ve said it before; you have to pay to play. We all have certain financial obligations that must be well-researched and thought out before you enter a certain demographic market within the free market economy.”
Neunder continued by saying he supports the businesses operating in compliance and understands their plight. “I hear you loud and clear,” he said.
Rainford said he agrees with Neunder and directed Nicole Rissler, the county’s Department of Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources director who was tasked with creating the updated plan for commercial activity at parks, to amend the amount of time the task force will meet from the initial six months recommendation to two months, and specified that members would include those operating within full compliance and those that have been illegally using the parks as a place of business.
Rainford acknowledged the potential for struggle when members of opposing situations come together on the task force. “I would just ask that both sides work together in a way that’s best for all of our businesses,” he said.
District 4 commissioner Mark Smith shared Rainford’s views. “I think the sooner the better,” Smith said. “I’m looking forward to the groups working together and coming to the resolution we need.”
According to the proposed schedule, the board will review applications from the public in April and, following appointments, the task force will meet June through August.
“I don’t want to believe there is anybody in the community that wants to be operating out of compliance, illegally, with a competitive advantage,” Neunder said. “I would hate to think that that’s the case because that’s just not the way we should be doing business here in Sarasota County. If it is, shame on them.
“So this task force is going to provide an opportunity for our business community to allow some of their perspective, their hardships and everything that they have to do to come into compliance and conduct business the right way.”

Turtle Beach Park’s boat ramp. (photo courtesy of Sarasota County)
ChrisAnn Allen
Author: ChrisAnn Allen

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