When commissioners return in September, a proposal for parks and beaches is expected to be waiting for them.
| 10:00 p.m. July 13, 2022
With a new state law opening the door for towns, cities and counties to ban cigarette smoking on public beaches and parks, Longboat Key leaders expect to have a rule ready to vote on when the Town Commission returns from two-and-a-half months of summer break in September.
The statewide-enabling legislation, which amends Florida’s Clean Indoor Air Act and was sponsored by state-Sen. Joe Gruters, took effect July 1. That morning, the Sarasota Republican spoke at a news conference on Lido Beach, alongside Director of Florida Conservation for Ocean Conservancy J.P. Brooker and Stephen "Dr. Beach" Leatherman, a recognized expert in creating the ratings to rank the world’s best beaches.
On the same day, as they wrapped up their final meeting before their traditional summer hiatus, the five present Town Commissioners indicated they didn’t want to wait until September to simply begin discussions on beach smoking. Instead, they asked town staffers to skip that step and be ready Sept. 12 for the first of two public hearings on an ordinance written in the interim.
"I think a lot of communities are working on their approaches to this," Mayor Ken Schneier said. "Just to suggest that staff and counsel begin work on an ordinance that addresses this for us that in my view would cover beaches and parks to the extent we can."
At least one town in Florida, Indian Harbour Beach in Brevard County, had an ordinance pre-approved in June to take immediate effect July 1. On the flip side, Palm Beach County said they would focus more on littering than lighting up with plans to promote proper disposal with beach-placed canisters. "I don’t want to be the smoking police," said Eric Call, the parks and recreation director there told a Palm Beach television station.
"There are examples out there, and others are moving forward," Longboat Key Town Manager Tom Harmer said. "So I would take this direction to say we don’t need to come back to you in a workshop, we’re just going to come back to you with a proposed ordinance for you to consider."
Sarasota is already heading in the same direction, agreeing last week to proceed.
"I would say move as swiftly as possible," Sarasota City Commissioner Jen Ahearn-Koch said of a beach smoking ban.
According to Ocean Conservancy, cigarette butts have been the most commonly found litter on Florida beaches during the organization’s annual Coastal Cleanup for the past 31 years. The butts are made of tightly packed plastic fibers that erode into smaller bits, which accumulate in fish and other organisms, adversely impacting sea life health and reproductivity as well as human health when consuming the affected fish.
Local governments remain barred from regulating the use of unfiltered cigars.
“Ocean Conservancy stood up and advocated for this very important law, and today we are beyond thrilled to see it officially go into effect,” Brooker said on Lido Beach. “For too long, cigarette butts have hurt our environment and Florida's beaches.”
Cyndi Seamon, the vice president of Longboat Key Turtle Watch, said the organization’s turtle patrol volunteers typically pick up trash they see during the season and conduct beach-cleanups at other times of the year. She said they frequently see cigarette butts and plastic cigar tips in the sand.
She also said cigarette butts can also arrive on the shore through another path that doesn’t involve beachside smoking. "Some of our trash is due to runoff from roadways," she said. "I am certain we have all seen the cigarette butts in curb area at intersections. When it rains guess where they run off to?"
Leatherman, who lobbied lawmakers in Tallahassee on behalf of the bill, extolled the success experienced by Hawaii when it moved to ban beach smoking.
“People said, ‘Oh, it can't happen. Waikiki Beach is a world-famous beach. People won’t come here and cause a dip in tourism,’” he said. “It had no effect on tourism. In fact, people are so glad there are not cigarette butts to litter the beach make it unattractive.
“We’ve got so many great beaches in Florida, and Hawaii has been beating out Florida with the number of top 10 beaches, and that can’t be right. We’ve got 825 miles of great, wide, sandy beaches while Hawaii has something like 100 miles, so I think it's time for now for more Florida beaches to make the list.”
Two Florida beaches did make Leatherman’s top 10 list for 2022, Caladesi Island State Park in Dunedin/Clearwater is ranked second, and St. George Island State Park in the panhandle is fourth.
Enacting a ban here is one thing. Enforcing it is another. Discussions among Sarasota city staff and commissioners may include options for smokers, such as a designated smoking area well away from the shore.
“Now comes how do local governments tackle this issue?” Gruters said. “We're hoping that through education campaign, hopefully by setting the example early on in by widespread the PR campaign at the local level that we'll be able to deal with some of those issues, but there's no question law enforcement has to have a buy-in.
“We've talked with law enforcement and local communities, and the overwhelming response from local governments is they wanted to have the ability to do this, and they thought they can manage the flip-side once it actually happens.”
In 2013, a county judge ruled against the city of Sarasota in its attempt to begin issuing citations for outdoor smoking on beaches and other public, non-school outdoor areas. The American Civil Liberties Union fought the city ordinance, painting the smoking ban as a back-door tool to fight homelessness.
The county legislation followed a city ordinance adopted in 2008 to prohibit smoking on public beaches and public beach parks, parks that are adjacent to the beach
Chapter 386 of the Florida Statutes, the Florida Clean Indoor Air Act, prevents outdoor smoking by anyone under 18 within 1,000 feet of school property and gives the state power to regulate any other outdoor smoking. It was that chapter that was amended to create this new opportunity for local governments.
During last week’s Sarasota City Commission Meeting, City Attorney Robert Fournier sought direction from regarding any local action, reminding them of differences between the city and county ordinances prior to being struck down in court.
"The city did not act to prohibit smoking in parks. The county did, but only when youth athletic organized events were going on," Fournier said. "So the question right now is, if you want to address this, would you prefer to wait and see what Sarasota County does? Or, if you know now that you either do not want to regulate or that you don't, I could prepare an ordinance accordingly to be brought back."
(Sarasota Observer city hall reporter Andrew Warfield contributed to this report.)