Riding a jet ski or taking a parasail ride are as much a part of Fort Myers Beach as waiting in traffic to get over the bridge. In fact when you come over the Matanzas Pass Bridge it’s common to see the parasailers high in the sky as you take in that spectacular view.
The Jet Ski and Parasail business has come a long way since before Fort Myers Beach incorporated back in the mid-90’s. There was a time there were no rules. People were towing machines to Fort Myers Beach from everywhere. Bill Perry, one of the early Jet Ski operators on Fort Myers Beach, says around 1990 there were at least 30 operators and hundreds of machines on the water. They would make the journey during the busy months, plop down their flags, and leave town when the tourists went home. Safety meant nothing, it was all about the money. Machines were colliding, people were getting injured, even killed.
First Lee County caught wind of the situation, and with the help of local operators started crafting rules. Eventually the town incorporated and took what the county created, made some tweaks, and adopted an ordinance that has been on the books ever since.
Chapter 27, as it has become known, includes regulations that cover safety, insurance, a business license, the number of vehicles an operation is allowed to have on the beach, and how to properly fuel vehicles, among other very specific regulations. They must also be at least 500 feet apart from one another, unless they were operating before the ordinance went into effect, which grandfathered them in where they were.
The ordinance also put a cap on the number of licenses the town would issue; 11 personal watercraft licenses and 7 for parasailing. And, all the vendors must work out a lease agreement with a property owner on the beach to be their home base of operations. The town charges $170 for an annual license. Of course, operating the business costs much more; the machines, the insurance, the fuel, the employees, etc.
Over the years, a community of vendors has developed that the town regulars and town council have come to know and appreciate.
So what’s the fuss been about lately?
According to several current and former town council members, it was always understood by both parties, that TPI would be able to operate its own Jet Ski/Parasail business behind its new resort. TPI owned the Pier View Inn before the construction on the new resort began. During that time, one of the vendors was operating in that spot and continues to do so today, during construction. TPI took over the lease agreement the vendor signed with the previous owner of the Pier View. That lease expires at the end of this year.
TPI has been working with the vendor to meet the standards the company expects to go side-by-side with a $200 million resort. They have been unable to work out a deal. According to the town ordinance, these licenses can be sold or transferred. TPI attempted to buy the license, however, they say, the asking price amounted to extortion. If they cannot work out a deal, that vendor can simply move on down the beach and find another location.
That brings us back to the cap.
The town council is looking at the ordinance to try and find a way that will allow TPI, or any new hotel that develops, the option to “self-perform,” and not be beholden to the vendors who hold the limited number of licenses available. Councilman Jim Atterholt says the agreement made with TPI during the negotiations years ago needs to be kept. “TPI is transforming this island. They have been working with the town in every way. This is about the long-term. It’s a one-off unique negotiation and the vendors should acknowledge that.”
Atterholt brings up the vendors because they are opposed to lifting the license cap. And, they made those feelings clear this week at the Local Planning Agency meeting. They believe TPI either needs to make a deal with a current vendor to operate on TPI’s property or buy one of their licenses. They say TPI needs to follow the rules in chapter 27 and there is nothing in writing otherwise.
Both TPI and the town now say the language that ultimately went in front of the LPA and Town Council in the public hearings in 2017 and 2018 sufficiently addressed the situation. This language was never a point of contention nor discussion once the application advanced to LPA and Town Council back then. Their focus was really on bigger issues such as density, height of buildings, the size of the restaurant, and property contributions to the town that TPI was making. The language as approved says that TPI can operate its beach vendor operations if it is permitted by Chapter 27 of the Land Development Code.
And, that is the snafu.
Licenses will most likely never become available. The small group that owns them now will continue to own them. Perhaps they might sell one to an employee, which actually happened this month for a reported $3 million. The town allows the licenses to be transfered or sold without getting involved.
Councilman Bill Veach suggested that the town council lift the cap by one to allow TPI to get its license, and if one goes dormant or isn’t renewed, drop the cap back down. That may be a route the council goes.
Atterholt said the council has every right to change the ordinance, which was backed up by town attorney John Herin this week. Herin also said the town council could decide to ban the practice altogether if they decided to. As a government entity they have that power.
We will also be discussing this topic on our show Saturday morning.