City Council members deadlocked on the question of a low-speed cart rental business on Sanibel, at Council's meeting Oct. 2 at MacKenzie Hall. The Planning Commission had denied the business, Sanibel Carts, its conditional use permit application in May. Sanibel Carts is the second enterprise in two years to apply for a permit for a low-speed vehicle rental operation on the island.

The business’s operators, Laura DeBruce and Jeffrey Blackman, appealed to Council on grounds of “fundamental fairness and equal protection. Our carts are street-legal, with four wheels, a roof and a steering wheel,” they said. “They are easy to drive. Just as bicycles are accepted on roads, so should carts. They should not be compared to mopeds or scooters,” they added.

DeBruce and Blackman argued that a comparison to automobiles is invalid, because “our carts don’t go as fast, they don’t pollute, and they don’t threaten wildlife. They reduce the need for tourists to rent cars at the airport,” they said.

Citing a traffic impact statement, the appellants asserted that the carts “would not generate a greater volume on the roads. These vehicles are already popular on Sanibel. Billy’s Bikes rents up to 60 scooters,” they said, adding, “This is fundamentally unfair—our seven electric carts v. 60 scooters at Billy’s Bikes.”

They also protested the Commission’s concern about the carts’ slow speed. “The City cannot prohibit our carts on the basis of annoyance,” they said.

Prior to Council’s deliberations, City Attorney John Agnew gave Council members explicit instructions, according to law. “No new testimony is to be taken,” Agnew said. “The decision is to be based on the record established before the Planning Commission and arguments of the parties on that record. Council can determine only whether the Planning Commission has properly interpreted and applied the provisions of the Land Development Code, based upon the application and evidence.”

Agnew also laid out the limitations of Council’s decision-making authority. “You may uphold, reverse or modify the Planning Commission’s decision or remand the application back to the Planning Commission for re-hearing,” he said. “Council may not decide whether to approve or deny the application.”

Councilwoman Holly Smith, Council’s Planning Commission liaison, argued strongly in support of the appeal. “At the Planning Commission meeting, safety and speed were emphasized, but the 25-mph maximum speed cannot be a reason for denial,” she said.

Smith also argued that Sanibel Carts’ seven rental vehicles would not “adversely affect traffic flow on the island. I am also concerned that the carts were compared to mopeds, scooters and automobiles,” she added.

Smith applauded the appellants’ good faith efforts to comply with City objectives. “You actually changed your location, based on discussions with the planning department, and there were no concerns from the public about the location,” she said. “Your application stands on its merits.”

Finally, Smith sympathized with the appellants’ frustration with the application process. “After working for many months with our staff, with everyone intent on the greater good of the Island and the Sanibel Plan, your application was denied. I understand that you would be unprepared for a complete denial,” she said.

Although praising the appellants’ presentation as “excellent, cogent and considered,” Councilman Jason Maughan supported the Planning Commission’s position. “Unfortunately, as conditional use, we have a disagreement of minds,” he said. “I am, respectfully, unmoved enough to overturn the decision. Weighing the evidence, I find that the Planning Commission has correctly interpreted the Sanibel Plan. I would not approve reversal,” he concluded, adding, “I genuinely hope that you do something,” he said directly to the appellants. “I hate to turn you away.”

Councilman Chauncy Goss questioned the appellants’ argument that the Commission “didn’t delineate between their carts and mopeds, scooters and cars. The Sanibel Plan doesn’t address carts,” Goss reasoned. “They didn’t exist at the time [of the Plan’s formulation].”

City Attorney John Agnew explained that the Commissioners did not find low-speed carts to be in the same category as mopeds or scooters. “They found that [the carts] contain similarities to scooters as means of transportation and have the potential to exacerbate traffic delays,” he said.

Agnew also spoke to the subtleties of Florida’s law governing low-speed vehicles. “While [carts] are legal, counties or municipalities may prohibit them in the interest of safety.” Reasoning resting solely on low speed “would make a prohibition improper,” he added, with the proviso, “This is not a wholesale prohibition. Other such vehicles are personally owned on the Island. While a prohibition is impermissible based solely on speed, considerations of safety can be valid.”

In response to Goss’s question as to whether City staff treated the Sanibel Carts application differently from others, Sanibel’s Community Services Director Keith Williams reported that the staff “presented facts and findings. Staff can provide general guidance,” he said, “but any guidance provided is always dependent upon the Planning Commission’s rulings or renderings. Staff’s job is not to anticipate every concern brought up by the Commission.”

With Vice Mayor Mick Denham absent, a motion to uphold the Planning Commission’s denial split Council down the middle. Councilmen Maughan and Goss voted in favor. Mayor Kevin Ruane and Councilwoman Smith were opposed. The motion was continued. It will be reconsidered at the November meeting, when Vice Mayor Denham is present to break the tie. The last word went to Maughan, who quipped, “Sorry, Mick.”