Increasing pressure on parking at Sarasota County parks as more users move to the area has prompted the county’s Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources Department to suggest enhanced enforcement of an existing policy that would restrict charter operations in county parks.
The pandemic-fueled population explosion brought a flood of newcomers, many of whom purchased boats that must be trailered to public ramps at Sarasota County parks that have limited parking for boaters and other park users.
And with yearslong waiting lists at the handful of marinas that dot the county’s coastline, the growth in charter operators to meet growing demand means that many are conducting business as usual — picking up and dropping off clients at the county park boat ramps in violation of county policy that prohibits such commercial operations in public parks.
The problem is many, if not most of them, couldn't comply if they wanted to.
The county also mandates charter boat captains have a business use permit to operate in the Marine District, and that requires a brick-and-mortar presence either within the park or on an adjacent property.
The other option, nearly a dozen of operators told commissioners during public comment, is to go out of business, which would mean a loss to local tourism as access to the Gulf of Mexico supports hundreds of jobs by owners of tour and fishing charters, some of them in business here for decades.
That’s the quandary facing county commissioners as they attempt to balance the needs of taxpayers and residents with the tourism that fishing and sightseeing charters bring along with the longtime non-enforcement of the county’s own ordinance that has allowed the establishment and operation of the businesses using the parks as a depot in what's effectively scofflaw fashion.
Commissioners showed little appetite for forcing the charter operators and their employees out of the water, but they acknowledged something must be done to either enforce the law or to change it.
“There are communities throughout this country that are absolutely suffering, and if we're trying to figure out that we maybe have a little bit of a parking problem due to economic tourism coming our way, I think it's our job to figure that out,” Commissioner Mike Moran said.
Charter operators told commissioners that if the proposed updated county policy were to go in effect as written — and this time be enforced — marine tourism would dry up, resulting in few options with prices out of reach for most.
Even if they wanted to comply, the captains said they can't because of the associated business use permit requirements.
Among them was Frank Martinelli, owner and operator of Private Custom Charters, a two-boat pleasure tour company he founded with a single watercraft in 2006. He’d like to operate out of Marina Jack, he told the Observer, but has been waiting for an open commercial slip there for the nearly two decades he’s been in business.
“We have two luxury yachts. We don't fish. We are a sightseeing tour,” Martinelli said. “We do dinners. We do weddings. We do proposals. We do burials at sea. We have two vessels and we're out there every single day.”
He said he checks in at Marina Jack periodically, and the answer is always the same. No vacancy.
“In the meantime we started doing like everybody else, picking up and dropping off at different parks, but mainly I do pick up a lot of high-end clients on Longboat Key, Bird Key and Siesta Key at their private residence docks.”
Parking space race
Parking is at a premium in public parks.
In 2021, records indicate there were 22,000 pleasure and commercial watercraft registered in Sarasota County. To serve those not docked at homes or marinas, there are seven county-owned and operated water access parks with boat ramps that have a combined 180 boat trailer parking spaces and 147 vehicle parking spaces. In addition, there are three water access parks that have seawall and/or dock access with 95 vehicle parking spaces.
County Park Boat Access
Seawall Dock Access
Blackburn Point Park
Indian Mound Park
Loreto Court Bay Access
Manasota Beach Public Boat Ramp
Nokomis Beach Public Boat Ramp
Snook Haven Park
Turtle Beach Public Boat Ramp
Blind Pass Beach Park
Nokomis Beach Park
Nora Patterson Bay Island Park
When Martinelli picks up at parks, he said he encourages clients to arrive by alternate means such as Frog Hop or Johnny’s Free Ride on Siesta Key, ride-share services or, in some cases, limousine.
“If we're doing a bachelorette party for 12 girls, we're not going to have them bring 12 cars,” Martinelli said. “They're going to be drinking and we don't want (them) to drive at all, so we're trying to be responsible and encourage getting a ride over so they're not parking there.”
Martinelli said the proliferation of charters that are in part causing park crowding may ease itself somewhat. Many operators have not taken the time or expense to become a licensed captain by the U.S. Coast Guard, which is required by law.
According to the Coast Guard, would-be captains must provide witnesses who can attest the candidate has spent 360 days as part of a crew of any vessel with at least 90 days in the last three years plus a minimum of 90 days offshore as sea time. They also must pass a Coast Guard exam.
“Since Covid, now everybody who has a boat is becoming a captain and turning it into a business, so there are a lot more guys out there,” he said. “We're starting to see a few of these guys realizing they’re doing this illegally and don't have a commercial charter license. When they realize the legal costs of doing it they're starting to get out of it. My insurance costs me $47,000 a year.”
More than insurance costs, operators of illegal passenger vessels are subject to penalties of $60,000 or more for passenger-for-hire operations. In 2022, the Coast Guard fined a boat operator $98,364 for illegally providing charters around Destin.
A collaborative solution
Martinelli docks his boats at his home, but every morning dozens of fishing charters will trailer their boats to the public docks, meet passengers, return a few hours later, load up their boats and leave for the day. They are not permitted to accept payment at the docks, so those transactions are typically executed online.
“How are you going to put all of these companies out of business that have been doing this for so long without any rhyme or reason,” Martinelli said. “We are willing to work with the county to find a solution. We don't mind paying a medallion fee and naming the county as held harmless in our insurance policies.”
Martinelli may get his wish to work with the county on finding such a solution. Commissioners instructed County Administrator Jonathan Lewis to provide options to allow operations to continue until a permanent solution can be crafted, likely with the help of a task force.
“We would love to be a part of a task force,” he said. ”We need a little more support in getting our point across and coming up with a solution. We are willing to pay per boat. We are willing to work with the county and we're willing to do what we need to do to be compliant and do this legally.”
Lewis told commissioners a task force would likely not be seated until early 2024. In the interim, operators remain subject to possible fines for operating illegally.
Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources Director Nicole Rissler said violators have been issued warnings, but no citations. Commissioner Neil Rainford said he would like to keep it that way for now, and perhaps by their next meeting have a stopgap measure to consider that suspends fines until the matter is resolved.
“I think that's tough for these businesses to risk every time they pull up getting fined,” Rainford said.
Andrew Warfield is the Sarasota Observer city reporter. He is a four-decade veteran of print media. A Florida native, he has spent most of his career in the Carolinas as a writer and editor, nearly a decade as co-founder and editor of a community newspaper in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina.