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County Commissioners Aim to Rein in commercial Boat Ramp Usage

Written by on Thursday, October 26, 2023

Charter boat captains fear that could sink their business.

By: Ramon Lopez

Original Air Date: Oct. 25, 2023

Host: Sarasota County rules allow commercial service from public parks only in very narrow terms. Now county staffers intend to enforce these rules with boat ramps, threatening the existence of dozens of charter and fishing boat owners. Fourteen captains and family members signed up at yesterday’s County Commission meeting to testify. How did the commissioners respond? WSLR reporter Ramon Lopez has the details.

Boat ramp at the Venice Train Depot Park.

Ramon Lopez: Sarasota County Commissioners on Tuesday got an earful from local charter and fishing boat captains. They flooded the County Administration Center in downtown Sarasota to protest a proposed move by the county to restrict their long-term use of county docks to pick up and drop off customers. County officials say the practice was never permitted in the first place, but not enforced by law enforcement. Staff proposed updating language to the county code to clarify the restrictions. If the existing code covering use of parks was amended by the five county commissioners, the charter boat operators would immediately face stiff fines and possible jail time. Of concern is the shortage of parking at the boat ramp parks used by the customers of the charter boat companies. Nicole Rissler, director of Sarasota Parks and Recreation, explains.

Nicole Rissler: So the proposed amendments for Chapter 90 include enhanced previous code, which provides law enforcement the mechanism to enforce unauthorized prohibited use of county property within our parks and beaches. I’ll just note this is clarifying language. Right now, today, our county code in Chapter 90 prohibits commercial activity from occurring in our parks.

RL: Sarasota boat captain Matt Fulow, testified against the move to control his livelihood, as did other charter boat skippers.

Centennial Park boat ramp near downtown Sarasota.

Matt Fulow: Why are our businesses such a problem for the county that you feel the need to fine us $500 or 60 days in jail? Imagine 60 days in jail for just trying to put food on your family’s table. Imagine 60 days in jail for being an entrepreneur in a small tourism-based town. Wow, unbelievable! So again, we propose a decal, a medallion, whatever you want to call it, fee for using your parks. That’s Solution One. Solution Two, pay-to-play parking: Two hours minimum at the parks, okay? Anything longer than that, you pay a fee for it. Really simple. Simple, simple, simple. So, I’m asking you today to consider somehow providing us a permit or some way of being able to still operate a business that doesn’t do business in the park. I’m just asking you guys today to consider some way of making this work for the everyday worker like myself that relies on this job. Because I will lose this job if you take away our part. All I can ask the council to do is to put on hold the enforcement end of this until somehow without ruining the fishing industry and the commercial industry that’s supplying. We’re coming into the season now, and this is the worst time for something like this to happen. You know, if we can’t come to a head here today and you guys can’t come up with a decision, I feel like some type of compromise with this. If this goes through today, what am I supposed to do tomorrow on my charter?

Robert Redman launches his charter boat at the Venice Train Depot park.

RL: Commissioners were sympathetic to the plight of the charter captains. They suggested that a middle ground should be found, so the lucrative fishing businesses can stay afloat while staying within the law. Commissioner Mark Smith and Commissioner Neil Rainford:

 Mark Smith: We’re pro-business, so [that’s] another incentive to figure out a way to make this happen. I’m all for continuing the discussion and figuring out how we’re going to make this happen.

Neil Rainford: I think it’s critical that we do have a task force, and that we look at that task force in terms of what, if any, regulations are currently on the books that need to be changed, or ones that need to be implemented. The end result: Pause the ordinance amendment and come up with a compromise that would please everyone.

RL: It was decided that a task force would be created to tackle the issue. The commissioners tabled the discussion until after the first of the year. In the interim, the boat captains won’t be slapped with fines or face jail time.

This is Ramon Lopez for WSLR News.


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