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Major parking rule changes discussed at Tuesday Lee meeting

June 7, 2024
By Anna Ridilla

The Lee County Board of Commissioners unanimously voted for Commissioner and Vice Chairman Kevin Ruane to work with County staff to develop a proposed parking plan for the Lee County portion of Gasparilla Island during the regularly scheduled meeting on Tuesday, June 4. 

Ruane, who represents the district that includes Boca Grande, presented parking in Boca Grande as a commissioners’ item that was added to a revised agenda at 4:40 p.m. on Monday, June 3. The original agenda, which did not include this item, was distributed last week. 

The program Ruane is proposing would have the following elements, according to an email sent Tuesday by Ruane to the Beacon:

  1. Implement a “tiered parking program” for residents, business, and visitors.
  2. Set a “2-hour limit for parking” in the “commercial district.”
  3. Limit use of Gilchrist Avenue median parking to regular church services and create a “special use” permit for weddings, funerals, and special events.
  4. Limit or prohibit parking on East Railroad north of 5th Street.
  5. 5. Add signage and increase fines 

The motion and second were adopted 4-0 with Commissioner Cecil Pendergrass absent. The next step will be for staff, led by Commissioner Ruane, to develop a parking plan, which will then be brought back to the Board of Commissioners for final approval at an unspecified, later date.

“I have visited that island many, many times,” said Commission Chairman Mike Greenwell. “I visited recently, and there is no question that [parking] is an issue, there’s no question that it should be addressed … I think it’s something that just makes a lot of sense for the people that live in our community.”

In April 2022, the commission had voted unanimously to authorize Ruane to move forward in evaluating the parking situation in Boca Grande. As a part of his work on this issue, Ruane said he has met with over 100 island residents and done at least two dozen visits himself. 

Though Ruane mentioned that Memorial Day weekend and the weekend before that were the worst this year in terms of traffic, he said that it is an ongoing problem.

“I’ve tried to get a comprehensive reach,” Ruane said at Tuesday’s meeting. “I know that there was a lot of anxiety, we received some emails from the churches. When I talked to the churches, as many people in the businesses indicated, I wasn’t looking to disrupt their services, but in meeting with the Sheriff, in meeting with County staff, in meeting with residents we don’t park any other place in Lee County on a median – we don’t.”

Several residents of Boca Grande spoke during the following public comment period about day visitors, beach parking and parking on Gilchrist Avenue. There were no opponents who spoke, as the county had sent an email to respondents that the issue was specifically not on the agenda (see story here).

Louis Sarkes, who lives on East Railroad Avenue said that he and his wife have experienced visitors parking on their property, leaving trash and even asking to use their private bathroom and outdoor shower. 

“The parking situation in Boca Grande has become untenable and unsustainable,” Sarkes said during the public comment period on Tuesday morning. “A huge explosion of residential development in nearby Charlotte and Sarasota counties has resulted in a massive increase in day visitors to Boca Grande.”

Sarkes asked commissioners to find an island-wide solution to this problem. 

“Taking a piecemeal approach and restricting parking only in some streets, or just the beachfront streets, will push the problem elsewhere and make it even worse for residential neighborhoods,” he said. “Our residents should not bear the responsibility of providing parking and facilities for day visitors. This is what public facilities and state parks are for – they are designed for that purpose.”

Lynne Seibert, who lives on Damfino Street, also spoke at the commissioners meeting. Seibert served on the Boca Grande Community Planning panel for six years.

She addressed the commissioners, adding that there is not enough capacity in the historic district to accommodate the large crowds from neighboring counties. “South of the village state park beaches which are beautiful, very wide, and have parking and restroom facilities,” Seibert said. “That is where the visiting beachgoers should be directed. Now it is particularly urgent to deal with this problem because of the unprecedented rapid development occurring not only in Cape Haze, which has over 87,000 platted lots, but also in south Sarasota County and North Port, which has been named the fastest growing area in the nation.”

Ann Fletcher, who lives on Gilchrist Avenue, spoke to the issue of parking on the grass median there. “The parkway was never designed for parking,” she said, “and for most of the history, parking was not an issue. Although we residents would prefer no parking on Gilchrist, as the original planners envisioned, we do support the reasonable compromise being presented allowing Sunday worshippers to park on the median.”

Julie and Hugh Sullivan, who live on Fourth Street, both spoke during public comment as well, citing several incidents of trespassing and theft on their property. 

“In town, we have all of those beachgoers funneling into our beach streets,” Julie Sullivan said. “It’s jam-packed, and it creates an atmosphere and an environment that is chaotic. We’ve experienced theft and other trespassing, like people using our yard and our beach chairs. There’s a feeling that this is all just part of a park, and that we’re part of the park too.”

Hugh Sullivan continued: “The horror stories include people relieving themselves publicly in our yards, people using people’s swimming pools, stealing from their property, etc. etc. Could you imagine any other neighborhood that would put up with masses of people coming into their street, week after week, invading their homes, blocking their driveways, and partying?”

There was a general consensus among the public commentors and Commissioner Ruane that the churches must be accommodated for Sunday services and special events. The particulars were not discussed.

Sue Sligar, founder of Gilchrist Interiors, currently located on East Railroad Avenue, added that the influx of visitors has not been favorable to retailers on island, from her perspective. 

“They capture all the prime parking spaces in the shade areas on both sides of the car path” she said. “They’re parked there for almost the entire day, and very rarely do any of those people step into any of the shops.”

Commissioner Ruane noted that all members of the Board had also received two memos – one in April and one in May – from Brent Cross, who this spring was named new general manager of The Gasparilla Inn. Ruane stated that he had asked for tiered residential structured parking, timed parking within the commercial district, limited parking on Gilchrist Avenue and additional fines and/or penalties for people that violate the laws.

“Honestly, I’ve never had an entity like The Gasparilla Inn weigh in,” Ruane said. “I’ve had a couple conversations with Mr. Cross … and this is what the family – the Farish family – would like.”

(For the record, a letter from the Inn regarding its parking position was printed in this week’s Boca Beacon.)

“Our responsibility is to all of Lee County,” Commissioner Ray Sandelli added. “I hope that public safety is always number one, and consideration for people’s private property is always kept top-of-mind.”

Editor’s Note: The Beacon has requested, but not yet obtained, all relevant correspondence since March 2024 between Lee County and Boca Grande parties regarding the subject of parking.