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Siesta Key Thursday, Aug. 4, 2011 10 years ago

Skydivers request restriction change

by: Rachel Brown Hackney Managing Editor

More than a year after the Sarasota County Commission amended rules to regulate skydivers’ landings on local beaches, a plea from aerial enthusiasts has prompted the commission to take another look at the matter.

In June 2010, the County Commission approved numerous changes to Section 90 of the county code regarding beach activities. The revised code prohibits parachuting, paragliding and landboarding, unless an individual has applied for and received a permit for the specific activity.

A Feb. 1 email from Rob LaDue, a Parks and Recreation Department supervisor, noted, “Staff recommended that (skydiving) be regulated with a permitting process in order to ensure that the sport would protect public safety, abate liability to the public, protect public resources (e.g., protected native habitat and listed species) and ensure that a conflict did not exist with other scheduled events, crowded tourist seasons or municipal laws that may also apply … ”

He added that representatives of local group Suncoast Skydiving began talking with county staff in September 2010 about the permitting process. Several issues went unresolved, LaDue added, including the necessity of a $1 million general liability insurance policy for landings on the beach.

During the July 26 County Commission meeting, Steve Michael appeared on behalf of Mike Swain, of Swain Film and Video, to ask the commission “to reconsider making parachuting illegal for no compelling reason.”

Michael had signed up to read the statement during the public comment portion of the meeting because a speech impediment would have made it difficult for Swain himself to deliver the remarks, Michael said.

Swain’s statement pointed out that he had made almost 2,600 skydiving jumps in the Sarasota area over the past 47 years.

“My main contention,” Michael read, “is that prohibiting parachuting from taking place on county beaches and parks was done without due cause … With the current law in place, we have been asked to work with the Parks and Recreation Department to implement a permitting process. This has proven to be impossible because of unnecessary restrictions and unobtainable insurance requirements.”

Swain attributed the county code change to several misconceptions. The first, the statement said, is that skydiving is dangerous.

“Hundreds of thousands of skydives, both sport and tandem, are made every year all over the world and the safety record is enviable,” Michael read. “Any experienced and licensed skydiver has the skill to land safely and accurately on an open area such as a beach or a park without endangering the public or themselves.”

Second, Michael read, “I imagine when most people think of the beach on a crowded day, they envision a horizontal view with wall-to-wall people under the hundreds of colorful umbrellas. However, if the same location is viewed from above, you will see that people naturally congregate near the water. Behind that is always a huge empty area of high dry sand devoid of people … even on the most crowded day … Skydivers land where people aren’t — period.”

In his own, separate comments, Michael told the commission he had walked one recent day from Casperson Beach all the way to Casey Key, stopping to speak to concessionaires, restaurant managers and the public.

“I found absolutely no person who had anything bad to say about skydiving,” he said.

Michael added that the Sarasota County Convention and Visitors Bureau often includes skydiving scenes in promotional material. Moreover, he said, visitors who skydive in the area take videos home with them to show friends and relatives, spurring more tourism interest.

“It’s a tremendous free advertising system for the county,” Michael said.

Following the public comments that afternoon, Commissioner Jon Thaxton said he would like staff to contact the local skydiving group to discuss the matter. He recalled, he said, that parachuting was put on the list of prohibited activities on the beaches primarily because of worries about county liability in the event of accidents. Perhaps the skydiving group could suggest a means, other than by permit, for the county to allow parachuting again.

“I personally would not be happy with the idea of skydiving where there are a lot of crowds,” Commission Chairwoman Nora Patterson said.

Additionally, skydivers could harm the endangered birds that nest annually in the dunes, she said.

Thaxton made the motion directing staff to work with the skydivers. It passed unanimously.

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