By Rachel Brown Hackney
Representatives of kayak and paddleboard rental companies are resigning themselves to having to comply with a Turtle Beach Park management program Sarasota County will implement as of July 1.
Still, several say they feel the program is unnecessary and that the expense of purchasing “medallions” — certificates to show their conformity with county guidelines — will be a burden, especially as they are owners of small businesses.
“Two hundred fifty dollars is definitely better than $500,” Nate Dunn, owner of Gulfside Paddleboards, told SNL in a May 11 telephone interview. Still, he continued, “I was hoping it would be less.”
However, William “Scotty” Scott, co-owner of Siesta Key Bike and Kayak, said of county staff members, “I think they’ve been very fair with us.” He told SNL on May 11, “They listened to our issues, and they helped us out. … We’re satisfied.”
When the SNL contacted her on May 15, Sheila Lewis, co-owner of Siesta Sports Rentals, said, “We’re just really disappointed, [but] there’s nothing we can do about it.”
In a May 11 email to the firms, Rebekka Skwire-Cline, business development coordinator for the county’s Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources Department, explained that the county has reduced the proposed cost of each medallion to $250 for the initial program period, which will run from July 1 though March 31, 2018. The original plan called for a prorated fee of $400 per vessel from June 1 through March 31, 2018.
The reduced fee “will be evaluated during the program period and is subject to change,” Skwire-Cline added in a May 12 email.
“[W]e have heard from two commercial operators since announcing the expansion details,” she continued, “and both have been supportive.”
When asked why staff chose to wait an extra month before launching the program, Skwire-Cline replied in the May 12 email, “Staff wanted to provide reasonable notice and felt that a July 1 starting date would give participating companies adequate time to make necessary preparations, submit their applications and receive medallions.”
Among the requirements for obtaining a medallion, a company must provide the county evidence that it has general liability insurance coverage of at least $1 million and it must name Sarasota County “as additional insured.”
The program will allow up to 16 vessels per launch, per guide, the application notes.
Since 2013, the county has had the same type of managed program at its Ted Sperling Park on South Lido Beach. Business owners who spoke with SNL pointed out that far more companies provide tours at Sperling Park than at Turtle Beach Park. “We don’t have the mangrove tunnels” at Turtle Beach Park, for example, which are a big draw for tourists on Lido, Dan Stein, owner of Siesta Key Paddleboards, noted during a May 15 telephone interview. “We’ve got signs [at Turtle Beach Park] about alligators and snakes …”
In her email, Skwire-Cline explained, “Although Turtle Beach Park draws fewer commercial operators of non-motorized vessels than Ted Sperling Nature Park, there is definitely a commercial presence.”
The official regulation for Turtle Beach Park, signed by Carolyn Brown, director of the Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources Department, says, “The use of non-motorized water vessels, such as kayaks and canoes, has become very popular for the general public and has created a demand for CRTOs [commercial recreation and tour operators]. Certain launch sites within Sarasota County are very desirable locations for CRTOs, and … it has been determined that site specific rules and guidelines will aid in site management, natural resource protection and fair and equal site access for all users.”
Along with kayaks, paddleboards and canoes, the rule continues, other non-motorized vessels to which the rules will apply are rowboats, inflatable boats, rafts, sculls, dories and driftboats.
“To be clear,” Skwire-Cline wrote, “the decision to expand the program to Turtle Beach Park was not driven by any specific company behavior, or by the volume of activity and it was not our intention to represent it as such.” She added, “Rather, the primary goal is the need to bring this site into compliance” with Section 90 of the County Code.
One section of that chapter, for example, forbids “the sale or rental of athletic equipment, sports equipment, jet skis and other Watercraft, or any other items; provided, however, that the County may issue permits, or enter into license agreements, leases or other agreements for the sale or rental of any of the above on such terms and conditions as the County shall deem proper and in the best interest of the citizens of the County.”
More facets of their frustrations
Referring to the rental company operators at Turtle Beach Park, Stein of Siesta Key Paddleboards told SNL, “we all get along great. We’ve been doing this for years.”
Not only do representatives of the businesses assist clients, he pointed out, but they also help members of the public, and they even pick up trash.
“For Turtle [Beach], in my opinion, it doesn’t make sense,” Dunn of Gulfside Paddleboards said of the program. Just as Sheila Lewis had pointed out after an April 18 county open house on the proposal, Dunn noted that the rental firms operating at Turtle Beach have been careful not to solicit customers on-site. Everything is handled through their shops, he added.
Stein and Dunn also expressed frustration with having to pay for medallions when they have few rentals during much of the year.
“July’s our busy month,” Stein pointed out. “I would want 20 medallions” for that month, he added, but during other periods, he rents only two or three paddleboards a day.
“This month, it’s totally dead,” Dunn said.