Task force to examine commercial water activities now in place

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Recommendations due to the county in September

The crew has been chosen and the ship is set to sail.

From a pool of 22 applicants, the Sarasota Board of County Commissioners on April 23 appointed five members to a task force to consider the best way to handle commercial boating businesses — such as charter fishing, tour boats, water sports and scuba diving — in light of some businesses of that nature using public access points for pick-up and drop-off.

According to a Jan. 30 motion by District 3 commissioner Neil Rainford, the newly formed task force comprises two commercial, water-based activity operators with local business tax receipts, two water access/marina property owners or charter tour operators with a lease of land abutting the Marine Park District, and one member-at-large.

This means two members represent businesses operating out of county parks and two are owner/operators using privately owned marinas, representing both sides of this matter.

In a series of nominations and votes, the board appointed Brad Donahue of Siesta Key Watersports along with Jason Kobza of Low Tide Tours and Sarasota Boat Tours for the commercial water-based tour operator positions; Mason Tush of Tush Properties and CB’s Saltwater Outfitters (on Siesta Key) along with Sherman Baldwin of Hart’s Landing for the property owner or leaseholder spots; and Tony Nakonetschny of Silent Sports Outfitters as the community member representative.

Following a rise 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.

Since the activities had been ongoing for decades without enforcement and private marina spots are few and far between, the commission opted to continue the pause in enforcement until a new plan was devised.

Members of the task force will meet through August to determine a mechanism by which businesses can continue to offer their services to the community and its visitors within a legal framework. Upon completion in September, the task force will present commissioners with a report of its findings and recommendations.

To apply to be on the task force, people were required to be Sarasota County residents and show proof of a business tax receipt and business use permit. Additionally, applicants were asked to list how long they have lived and worked in the county, as well as business credentials, licensing and community involvement, and why they were interested in joining.

Baldwin has been a Sarasota County resident since 1985, owns and operates a charter fishing and tour boat business and, since 2017, has been a concessionaire of Hart’s Landing — a bait and tackle shop underneath the Ringling Causeway.

In a May 8 interview, Baldwin said he was qualified for any of the three task force categories so he listed each of them in his application, but was pleased to be selected as a representative of area property owners/leaseholders in the Marine Park District. He said he looked forward to finding a resolution for the issue at hand, with the first meeting held May 20 in the county administration building. It was open to the public.

“Our plan is to finally determine exactly what the parameters for charter tour boat and recreational charter boat operations are going to be in the county,” Baldwin said. “I think that was never clearly defined before and we are going to determine what can and cannot be done in Sarasota County regarding tour boats and charter fishing boat operation.”

Baldwin said he was surprised that none of the task force members were representative of single-boat charter captains.

“There are people that were appointed that are charter boat operators, but I was hoping there might be a guy that is licensed and has insurance, but that’s his only boat, nothing else, and that group of people would be represented by that person,” he said. “That’s my only concern with the makeup of the task force itself.”

Baldwin said nearly half of his business at Hart’s Landing is charter fishing captains. “Anybody that’s ever had a commercial boat that needs to find a place to run out of, even to just keep their boats when they’re not using it, is next to impossible,” he said, adding one of his tour boats has been on a waiting list for Marina Jack for more than five years. “So, it’s a very difficult thing to find; not only a slip for a commercial boat, but a slip in which you pick up and drop off passengers.”

Regarding the task force mission, Baldwin pointed out that they are on a “fast track” to make recommendations that could set a precedent for similar situations around the state.

“This, I think, could possibly set the stage for the next 100 years. It could be really long-term decision making in light of this big question of how this will be handled,” he said. “There’s a lot of governing authorities, including municipalities, county and state agencies that will be looking at this. The federal government might even take notice since federal funding could be involved with future ramps and requirements would need to be met on their end.

“Our tourism economy relies on these matters. This affects everyone from the business owners to the average Joe and Jane that just want to go fishing in one of the most beautiful places on the planet. This is a huge issue with major ramifications.”

ChrisAnn Allen
Author: ChrisAnn Allen

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