On Monday the Fort Myers Beach town council voted 5-0 to do away with the current ordinance now on the books that regulates jet ski and parasail operations on the beach. The issue will be referred back to the Local Planning Agency, town staff will re-write the ordinance from scratch, and a workshop will be held to get input from all sides.
This issue came to a head when Fort Myers Beach Community Services Administrator Daphne Saunders said, during a town council meeting, that the town has not been enforcing the ordinance at all. She added, “there are a lot of violations that are happening right now.” That public admission had several town council members scratching their heads, especially being that the number one reason most people had been supporting this ordinance was to protect the safety of the public. Why have an ordinance on the books if you have no intention of ever enforcing it? Saunders was not available at yesterday’s town council meeting.
There’s also been a debate over who actually owns the licenses. At a previous town council meeting, Chris Weber, who operates one of the businesses on the beach, told the council the vendors owned the licenses. That raised a lot of eyebrows. The vendors purchase the license from the town to operate either a jet ski or parasail business. They then have to work out a deal with a property owner to host their operation.
Once the vendors own the license, the way the ordinance is written now, they can sell or transfer that license without the town being involved. On Monday, Councilman Dan Allers said the town created an entitlement mentality with this ordinance. “We own the licenses,” he added.
Town Manager Roger Hernstadt described how unique the situation is with the jet ski and parasail vendors. “Everywhere else (to get a license) there’s some sort of competitive process. If their (the vendors) stance is that they own the licenses, you might as well stick with this ordinance. Don’t be surprised if we’re back to where we are today.”
The original ordinance, created over 20 years ago, did cut down on the
number of operators that were showing up from everywhere in the state to make a quick buck. It was an unsafe situation where people were getting hurt and killed. It was determined that keeping vendors 500 feet apart was how to keep people safer. However, the ordinance also grandfathered in several vendors allowing them to bypass the 500 foot rule.
Councilman Bill Veach suggested eliminating the non-comforming locations. “There are two vendors that are ten feet apart,” Veach said Monday. The majority of the jet ski and parasail vendors are in the downtown area, which is where the bulk of the people are that come to Fort Myers Beach. Moving vendors away from that area would certainly affect their revenue potential. Veach also suggested creating of a safety point system when it’s time for a license renewal. Those with better safety records would go to the top of the list during renewal time.
The original ordinance also created a cap for both jet ski and parasail licenses. That cap and the fact that the town has no control of the licenses once they grant them gives the licensees a lot of power. More power than a property owner, or new resort owner like TPI, that might want to provide the service. If they cannot cut a deal, the property owner cannot offer the service to guests. Some council members believe property owners should be able to self-perform these services for their guests if the cannot work out a deal with a vendor. That was the hole in the ordinance this town council was focused on fixing.
TPI could not work out an acceptable deal with the vendor now operating on the Margaritaville property. The contract between that vendor and TPI expires at the end of 2022. TPI could have negotiated a deal with any of the vendors with a current license, however, TPI has informed the town it now has no plans to offer the services to its guests. The vendor now using the TPI property will have to find a new location.
The Saunders revelation about the town not enforcing the rules is what’s led to the entire ordinance being scrutinized. Councilman Dan Allers said he recently spoke to a vendor who told him he had never been approached by the town, about ordinance compliance, until this issue was raised recently. Saunders said she didn’t even know if the vendors were following the rule on the number of jet skis permitted under the ordinance. “I’ve never gone out on the beach and said 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8.”
Councilman Bill Veach, who’s really been a driving force behind updating the ordinance, told Beach Talk Radio News last night that it’s more important to get this done right than done right now. “It’s complicated, but as I dug into chapter 27 there are many problems. Look at the TPI announcement. There will never be a PWVL or PAL at that location as long as chapter 27 stays the same. I was also told by staff that no one is in complete compliance.”
When Saunders openly admitted that, the entire ordinance started to be examined by the council. Vendors obtained attorneys who objected to what was happening which culminated at Monday’s town council meeting with proposed ordinance changes being scraped for an entire do over. The ordinance on the books now will remain in effect until a new ordinance is passed.
Holiday Watersports owner Sharon Faircloth told Beach Talk Radio News, “I think the Town made the right decision today and we look forward to working with the Town to improve Chapter 27.”
Attorney Sawyer Smith, who represents several of the vendors told Beach Talk Radio News, “We support the town’s decision and appreciate the thoughtfulness exhibited Monday.”