Area kayak tour operators claim a new permit requirement threatens to sink their bottom lines.
Sarasota County Director of Parks and Recreation Carolyn Brown presented a plan to the Sarasota Board of County of Commissioners (BCC) at a Wednesday meeting to charge commercial kayak tour operators an annual $500 permit fee per vessel to launch out of Ted Sperling Park at South Lido Beach.
“It’s a money grab,” said Tom McFarland, owner of Sea Life Kayak Adventures, a Sarasota-based tour operator that uses the park. “It’s not about the environment or the resources.”
The move was approved by a 4-1 vote at Wednesday’s County Commission meeting; Commissioner Joe Barbetta was the dissenting vote.
The permit fee is one component of a program to better regulate commercial tour operations using the launch site at Ted Sperling Park, which provides easy paddling access to mangrove tunnels, the Brushy Bayou and the Intracoastal Waterway. The permit will pay for a manager to monitor the park full time during the peak tourist season of February through April, and periodically during the slow season from May to January.
“The vessel-fee plan will hire a babysitter who will do nothing 95% of the time,” said Kelly Rhea, a guide for Sea Life Kayak Adventures, at Tuesday's meeting.
County staff said the program is needed to moderate the impact of the commercial operations on the facility, protect the environment and ensure ease of access at the launch site for the general public.
Complaints from residents about tour operators hoarding parking spaces at the park also spurred the move.
"I was hoping they could police themselves," Sarasota County Commissioner Christine Robinson said, speaking about the tour operators. "I don't like taking a route like this, but I don't see another way of making people act responsibly."
Some tour operators worry the fee will hit small operators hardest, claiming that a flat fee not tied to the number of revenue-producing launches of each vessel allows larger operators to more easily absorb the new financial burden.
"The big guys can afford to put as much plastic on the water as possible," McFarland said. "We're a small company, and we try to do small tours for the benefit of the wildlife and the environment. But we're going to be punished for keeping our tours small because we can't afford the permits."
The county plan does not cap the number of permits an operator can purchase, but limits the launch area to 16 vessels at a time to manage capacity.
Barbetta argued that operators should not have to pay for the county's inability to enforce existing rules.
"We need to create a methodology of enforcement, not a way to raise more money," Barbetta said.
Parks and Recreation analyzed other revenue-generating measures at the park, including parking fees, fees per launch and a county contract program.
A per-launch fee was nixed because it would be difficult to enforce and would end up costing tour operators more, staff said.
McFarland disagreed, arguing that a fee tied to the number of launches would more equitably scale permit expenses to revenue.
"I don't mind being regulated, but I think it should be on a per-launch basis," McFarland said. "We don't use those boats every day, especially during the off-season."
Barbetta added that a one-time fee would encourage overuse of the park by incentivizing tour operators to recoup upfront permit costs by running more tours.
"I understand free enterprise," Barbetta said.
The county report justified the permit based on several assumptions, including an average $50 tour cost for single kayaks and $60 for tandem kayaks, and a peak season launch rate for most operators of two tours a day with 12 to 16 vessels per tour. The county report estimated that the Ted Sperling Park launch site generates more than $750,000 in annual revenue for commercial tour operators.
"The county's estimates about what we're making are way overblown," McFarland said.
Parks and Recreation staff estimated operators would only need to launch each permitted vessel one time per month to recoup its permit fee.
The county anticipated the permit will cause "some market adjustments," and operators may decide to use other launch sites in the county that do not require permit fees.
Parks and Recreation budgeted $100,000 in 2014 to launch the new regulations, with plans to offset the initial cost with permit revenue. The permits are estimated to raise about $75,000 annually for the county.
"Don't forget about the guys out there working," Rhea said. "We’re not trying to exploit the park. Just go on TripAdvisor and read the reviews. For most people, we’re the highlight of their trip to Florida — better than Disney World.”
Click here to view a chart of permit fees across Florida counties.
Contact Nolan Peterson at [email protected]