by SC Publisher Shannen Hayes
Sanibel City Council voted 4-1 to reopen the public beach parking lots June 1 in a nearly six-hour special meeting on Tuesday. Beach parking has been closed to non-residents since March 24 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Sanibel Mayor Kevin Ruane voted against keeping the public beach parking lots closed for four main reasons – proper social distancing can be practiced at the beaches, public funding, parking revenue and constitutional rights.
He said it will be harder for the city to request the much-needed $1.75 million in public funding for the beaches with them closed longer than other areas; the parking revenue would help offset the $5.2 million in pension fund requirements; and from a constitutional point of view, it’s a problem when public beaches are not open to the public.
Councilman Jason Maughan disagreed with the closure being unconstitutional. “If I thought for one second what we were proposing to do with the beaches was unconstitutional, not only would I not vote for it, I would have left here and sued the city myself. Simple as that,” he said.
Vice Mayor Mick Denham, who made the motion to continue to closure, said he didn’t think two more weeks were unreasonable. Councilman Richard Johnson seconded Denham’s motion and initially with the condition of reopening if there was not a significant increase in virus cases that would caution against it.
Ruane didn’t want to continue kicking the proverbial can down the road when it comes to reopening. He pointed out that two of the three counties in the state with the highest number of virus cases would be opening beaches next week and he didn’t know how to defend Sanibel with public funding for public beaches that are not open.
Lee County opened its beaches two weeks ago, which includes Bowman’s and Turner beaches and Causeway Island Parks. Since the city’s beach parking lots have remained closed, those beaches became overcrowded and Sanibel was criticized by the county as a “contributing factor” to the problem.
It’s a criticism Ruane said he couldn’t deny and the city needed to be cognizant of its contribution. “It may not necessarily impact us receiving a check. It just tarnishes the relationship (with the county),” he said.
Councilwoman Holly Smith expressed concern not just over visitors from other states, but day-trippers from the other side of Florida where the virus was most prevalent. “We are talking two more weeks and when we are open, I don’t foresee our beach parking lots being empty. They are going to be full.”
In other decisions, council also voted to temporarily increase parking fines to $200, effective May 16.