County commissioners, weighing the future of parking on Siesta Key, hear how paid systems work and can succeed.
As Sarasota County leaders consider paid parking on Siesta Key, they recently learned such systems are commonplace at beaches in surrounding communities.
According to a report by county staff, Charlotte, Collier, Lee and Pinellas counties all have paid parking systems in place at their beaches, as well as the cities of Clearwater, Sanibel and St. Pete Beach. Each of the areas has a different rate and collection approach. Manatee County does not charge for parking.
“Most cities and municipalities do have some type of parking program that’s already in place,” said Clearwater Parking System Manager Hunter Hughes. “I think the key function of that is to reserve parking, not to act in a punitive manner, but to try to keep a flow going.”
In Clearwater, the rate is $1-$3 an hour or $20 a day at garages. It uses a smartphone app or pay stations in the parking lots, as well as parking meters in some areas. There is no discount for residents, but a 35-cent fee per transaction is waived for residents who use the app to pay.
When Sarasota commissioners heard the staff’s presentation, they decided to continue exploring the option with more research.
Commission Vice Chair Nancy Detert asked what the point of paid parking would be for the Key.
Director of Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources Carolyn Brown said in addition to creating some sort of turnover for existing parking, the county could reinvest that money into the beach or another project.
In Clearwater, parking fees brought in about $7 million last year, of which $5 million went to maintenance and staffing costs. The balance goes to beach clean-ups, crossing guards and supplementing the budgets of several city departments.
As the commission works on finding more than $5 million to balance this year’s budget without the use of county reserves, Commission Chair Paul Caragiulo said in his experience, charging for parking isn’t something the county can rely on to plug budget holes. And Detert wasn’t sure it would even help with freeing up spaces.
“I don’t think the fee makes you leave and vacate your space to the next person,” Detert said. “[People] go, spend the same time they always spend and then they’re just going to complain about the cost, human nature being what it is.”
Caragiulo said it’s up to the board to decide how they’d use revenue generated from parking.
“A clear idea of where this money is going to be used, and a very kind of slow and deliberate approach to this is going to be the best thing,” he said. “If you misfire … you’ve just eviscerated the potential for a long time.”
The Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce and the Siesta Key Association both said they support paid parking, with some conditions.
About 76% of preliminary respondents to an unscientific SKA survey said they support paid parking at the Siesta Key Public Beach, according to the staff’s report. Comments indicated that SKA members wanted some sort of free and reduced parking for residents, and were concerned that visitors to the Key would seek to park illegally in neighborhoods instead.
Additionally, the Chamber of Commerce voted to support it on the following conditions: all Sarasota County property owners would have free parking at the beach; non-property owners or renters could purchase a yearly decal; visitors would pay an hourly or day parking rate in line with other similar beach communities; all proceeds from parking on Siesta Beach would be used on the Key.
Clearwater’s Hughes said he recommends some sort of paid parking system. In Clearwater, it’s been in place in some form since the 1960s. In January, a paid parking garage a few blocks from Clearwater Beach opened, but the city is struggling to attract users. Hughes is confident that with more advertising, they’ll come.
“I think in most cities, it’s kind of customary more that you’re going to pay to park,” he said. “I have not heard any backlash whatsoever.”
The County Commission asked that staff come back with more information about paid parking, including data about where the county would hire a consultant to help with the transition.
In the meantime, staff is also gathering information about building a free parking lot at 6647 Midnight Pass Road.