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Sarasota wants quick fix for illegal use of county boat launches

A task force will have two months to solve a problem decades in the making: illegal charter boat use of Sarasota County water access parks.

Indian Mound Park in Englewood has 28 boat trailer spaces and 22 vehicle parking spaces.
Indian Mound Park in Englewood has 28 boat trailer spaces and 22 vehicle parking spaces.
Courtesy image
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By early summer, Sarasota County government will seat a stakeholders task force that will have two months to solve a problem decades in the making.

During Tuesday’s regular meeting, the Sarasota County Commission approved the composition of a five-member group tasked to solve what it calls the growing problem of illegal use of county water access parks for commercial charter sight-seeing and fishing tours.

Commissioners shortened the duration of the task force’s work from six months to two months, eager to resolve the matter sooner rather than later.

Commissioners tabled the matter last October as they instructed staff to develop a plan for a task force.

Charter businesses can legally operate from county-controlled boat ramps and dock facilities if they have a local business license and own or lease property for the business use on sites abutting a county-designated Marine Park District.

Compliant charter operators have complained that those who are noncompliant have taken advantage of the county looking the other way for years, and the growth in popularity of tours and fishing expeditions is crowding the ramps, docks and parking lots.

Noncompliant operators, meanwhile, cite limited access to boat launches, marinas and park-abutting space, leaving them no option but to put in or dock their boats elsewhere and pick up passengers at county waterfront parks. Any restrictions applied, many have told commissioners, will put them out of business and leave fewer options for visitors and residents.

The commissioners were collectively sensitive to the plight of noncompliant operators, but rules are rules, they said, and those who follow them, and invest accordingly, should not be placed at a competitive disadvantage against those who don’t.  

The task force is scheduled to be seated by June 1, meet as often as is needed and draft its recommendations to the commissioners by Aug. 1.

Membership composition will be:

  • Two charter tour operators who can provide a local business tax receipt.
  • Two water access/marina property owners or lease holders with a tour operator business and land abutting the Marine Park District.
  • One community member at-large.

Commissioner Joe Neunder said he is sympathetic to the small businesses, but added any business, inland or on the water, must factor expenses and requirements such as location, licensing and providing safe and legal customer access.

“As it stands here today, we have operators that are using our county facilities now not in the proper fashion with our current ordinance,” Neunder said. “This is an ugly topic that should have been addressed years ago. Also, if you've been in business in this community for 20 or 30 years operating illegally, you've had decades to figure out how to do it legally.”

Commissioners will consider a resolution to establish the task force during its Feb. 21 meeting, and on April 23 they will review applications and select committee members. 

Any action taken on task force recommendations does not affect city-controlled facilities at Centennial Park, Ken Thompson Park and Harts Landing.



Andrew Warfield

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.

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