On Tuesday, January 19th, the Town Council of Fort Myers Beach will hold the second and final public hearing followed by a vote on an ordinance that – if passed – could put some local beach chair vendors out of business, but would also give the Town control over an industry that has long operated with very little. Whether that’s a good thing or not depends on your point of view.
Traditionally, beach chair vendors have been allowed to operate provided they came to Town staff with permission from the uplands property owner and adhered to certain conditions and turtle regulations. No liability insurance was required and no actual license issued. This led to a few complaints over the years and some attempts by the Marine Resources Task Force to set regulations but there was little interest from Council.
Then, at an April 6, 2015 workshop, resident Roger Hamilton told Council that the situation with beach chair vendors had gotten so bad that he and his neighbors often had a hard time finding a place to sit.
“We should all have the ability to enjoy the beach in a safe manner,” he said at that meeting. “I did a personal survey and counted 180 chairs by 3 vendors in front of 4 properties one morning which are set up haphazardly to prevent individuals from entering the property. I have been the recipient of threats to call the police if I tried to sit too close to their chairs. We’re not asking to put them out of business, we’re just trying to get them to provide room for everyone.”
Chair vendor Chris Schaab responded by saying that all his customers pay “property taxes, bed taxes and sales taxes”, and they too would like a front row view.
Complaints by Hamilton and a number of others – including Councilwoman Summer Stockton’s father, Joe Stockton – led Council to ask Town staff to create a new regulatory ordinance and take it to the Local Planning Agency (LPA).
In August, Senior Planner Megan Will presented Council with a first draft of an ordinance that created a new Beach Furniture Vendor Permit (BFVP). Several meetings were held with chair vendors in September and October and Will provided Council with a revised ordinance on November 16th.
One of the biggest changes came as a result of how Town staff interprets the Land Development Code (LDC).
“In the downtown area, they are permitted as a principal use only and that the areas where the chairs are is actually in an area zoned EC not Downtown,” Will said at that workshop. “It’s principal versus accessory use -if there was a vacant piece of property, no problem, but they are not allowable as an accessory use for restaurants. If you are a resort, you have resort accessory uses.”
” At one point, vendors who held a PAL/PWVL were allowed chair rentals,” Megan continued. “Under the current regulations only DiamondHead, Lani Kai and the Pier View are compliant. However, there are many more permits that have been issued by previous staff who thought what they were doing was correct.”
The new ordinance would limit chair rentals on properties designated Commercial Residential (CR), thus eliminating all but five from being in compliance. This prompted Vice-Mayor Dan Andre to ask how many chair vendors the Town has, to which Will replied ’20 or so’ from the pier to Avenue E (Beach Pub). Other changes included the requirement of screened holding areas behind the dune line, the requirement of a sight plan, a 10 foot setback from all property lines, dune vegetation, turtle nests and beach accesses and a 15-foot setback from the wrack line, insurance and aisles of 6 feet for every fifty feet of linear beach where the chairs are being placed.
At the December 8th LPA meeting, LPA members expressed concern over the businesses that would be forced to close should the new ordinance pass. They sent the ordinance back to Council recommending that those with PWVL/PVL (personal watercraft and/or parasailing) licenses who have also historically rented chairs be grandfathered in and that no cap on the amount of chair permits be included.
Shortly after that meeting, the Sand Paper received a letter signed “Fort Myers Beach Concerned Vendors” saying that – should the ordinance pass – 18 of them would have to cease operation by July of 2017.
“This will have a serious negative impact to the vendors, businesses, property owners, local patrons and visitors to Fort Myers Beach,” the letter reads. “We feel this ordinance is extremely over regulating.”
At their meeting this Monday afternoon, Will presented Council with the final draft of Ordinance 15-12. Based on the wishes of the LPA, she and Town staff had made a number of important changes – including ‘grandfathering in’ of a number of vendors who would not qualify for permits under the new ordinance.
“Basically, if they have a commercial use permit or a PWVL/PVL license and have been renting chairs, they were grandfathered in so long as they adhere to the other requirements of the ordinance and provide the Town with proof they are paying taxes on their profits,” she told us.
One issue that Will remains unclear on, however, is the long-held practice of those holding PWVL/PVL licenses of renting chairs on adjacent properties as well as on the ones their personal watercraft licenses were for.
“I could find no record of how that was allowed, and I’m still unsure of the direction Council wants us to take on this issue,” she said.
After the meeting, Will sent us maps of the island, with every chair vendor business marked. Going by the maps, and excluding properties adjacent to those with personal watercraft licenses as that has yet to be determined, we found ten in the downtown area and four on the south end of the island that do not appear to be associated with any nearby licensed vendors – though even that remains unclear as some of the vendors Council has said they intend to grandfather in have multiple locations. Also, like any other non-conforming business, those who are grandfathered in will lose that designation should they cease to operate for longer than 30 days.
Anyone with any concerns about this issue is encourage to attend the second and final public hearing on January 19th.
Keri Hendry Weeg