By Rachel Brown Hackney
For the first time in about nine years, the Sarasota County Commission has approved a comprehensive overhaul of the fees and guidelines for private use of county parks facilities.
One primary goal for the changes was to achieve alignment with policies of the Parks, Preserves and Recreation Strategic Master Plan that the board approved in June 2016, Carolyn N. Brown, director of the county’s Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources Department (PRNR), explained during a Nov. 14 presentation to the commission.
The public may use the parks for free, she said, but “individuals or groups often desire to use our facilities exclusively for private parties, classes, athletic purposes, expos and events.” Revenue from fees for such activities runs about $2.8 million a year, Brown added, comprising about 70% of her department’s annual revenue of approximately $4 million.
“There has been a great deal of change to our community” and to county park facilities since the last major update of the fee schedule was undertaken in the 2007-08 timeframe, Brown added.
Staff conducted research on practices in counties comparable to Sarasota County, she said, and it evaluated information and comments from a wide variety of other sources in preparation for modifications to the fee schedule.
More than 2,000 participants completed a community needs survey conducted during the development of the parks master plan, Brown noted in a memo provided to the County Commission in advance of the Nov. 14 meeting.
In addition, staff discussed the issue with representatives of the municipalities and with members of the county’s Parks Advisory and Recreation Council (PARC). The latter voted unanimously to support the proposed changes, Brown said.
Tricia Wisner, PRNR operations coordinator, outlined the recommended modifications: Pricing categories will be reduced from three to four; requirements for users to obtain reduced fees or to have their fees waived will be clarified; criteria will be established for the prioritization of athletic field reservations; and adjustments will be made to site and/or program guidelines for specific users, as well as to policies regarding deposits and refunds.
For example, the guidelines note that PRNR-sponsored or co-sponsored activities will be among those getting top priority in consideration of reservations for use of athletic fields, along with organizations with which the County Commission has approved formal recreational facility use agreements.
“Priority Group 2” for reservations includes Sarasota County-based nonprofit organizations “providing ongoing youth/senior athletic recreation programs”; the Sarasota County School Board and School Board nonprofit charter schools; and grant recipients of the Visit Sarasota County Sports Event Grant Program.
Adjusting to the market
Forty fees have been increased, Wisner said, including those for use of the pavilions at Siesta Key Public Beach. Another 35 have been reduced to meet market conditions, she noted, and 75 remain unchanged, including those for athletic field lights and parking for events.
For example, Wisner noted that the new guidelines incorporate a low-season fee for use of the Phillippi Estate Mansion. “Right now,” she said, “a wedding on a Saturday on a hot summer day would cost the same as a wedding in February.” The modification in pricing has been designed to spur low-season use, she added.
The new guidelines put weekends from October through May, along with all major holidays, in the “High Season” category.
Another change will allow the public to pay for plaques on benches or tables in parks, she continued, “to commemorate a loved one or a special event.”
The new guidelines also include an outdoor fitness permit program, Wisner said. For example, many people book county park facilities to teach yoga and to hold “boot camps” on the beach. The pricing modifications will take into account instructors’ frequency of use of facilities, she continued. Staff will lower the fee for the permit to teach yoga on Venice Beach, for example, from $4,928 to about $3,900 a year.
“In the past year,” Commissioner Nancy Detert told Wisner, “I had complaints about [the county’s] charging the yoga instructor at the Venice Beach, and I agreed with the complainants that that seemed kind of crazy, until someone pointed out that [yoga instructors in the community] have their own YouTube [videos] …”
She googled those videos, Detert continued, and found that hundreds of people, twice a day, participate in yoga on the beach, “which is good for us.”
Taking up that much space, Detert said, and blocking some of the walking access for other beach-goers poses a problem. “If anyone thinks it’s terrible of us to charge for [yoga classes], they need to check YouTube, frankly.”
Yoga on the beach, she added, “is a legit business and a good one, but [the instructors] deserve to pay a fee.”
When Chair Paul Caragiulo asked for a motion, Commissioner Alan Maio made it, calling for the adoption of a resolution encompassing the new PRNR facilities use guidelines and general pricing plan. Commissioner Charles Hines seconded it, and it passed unanimously.