For the time being, it will be business as usual for operators of commercial fishing and tour boats out of Sarasota County-owned water access parks and facilities.
County commissioners on Tuesday were caught in a conundrum between a significant source of tourism activity for the region and businesses they say have been operating illegally for years on county property without enforcement.
More than a dozen speakers, most of them owners of fishing and other commercial watercraft who pick up and drop off customers at public boat launches, told commissioners that a permit program proposal by the county’s Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources Department would put them all out of business and harm local tourism.
Violation of the proposed ordinance, which is intended to clean up language in the current law, would bring penalties of imprisonment of no more than 60 days and a fine not exceeding $500. The county currently doesn’t allow non-permitted commercial activity in its parks and beaches, but enforcement to date has been discretionary, which is to say spotty.
In response to an increase in unauthorized commercial watercraft using parks and amenities for guests of private charters, Parks Department staff executed a commission request to research the development of a permit program for fishing charter and/or tour boats within the county water access parks that would allow charter boat operations.
Paying for a permit may seem simple enough, but there’s a catch, according to Parks Department Director Nicole Rissler. “You still have to have a business use permit, and to operate in the Marine Park District you have to have an abutting lease,” she said. That means an operator must have a slip or brick-and-mortar presence nearby. “It still has to have that other piece to be able to operate in the Marine Park District.”
Waiting lists for such a location, boat captains said, are years long.
Commissioners appeared to have little appetite to put the small operators out of business, nor to waive the obligations that other businesses must meet in order to operate in parks and on beaches. Rather than taking a vote on the proposed ordinance, commissioners accepted County Administrator Jonathan Lewis’ advice to allow him to bring back a plan for a collaborative approach — including a task force — to seek a solution.
That won’t happen until early next year.
Meanwhile, Commissioner Joe Neunder warned captains that they may face fines under the current ordinance as they continue to operate in the interim.
“For the record, what you guys are doing currently is not under our current ordinance,” Neunder said. “It’s just not really permissible. You could go operate tomorrow and presumably get a fine. It may or may not stop you from doing business, but that's currently how it exists today, but I do agree that perhaps deeper conversations have to be had in order to find a compromise here.”