Bonita Beach parking passes have washed out with the tide.
Lee County Commissioners on Tuesday agreed 4-0, with Brian Bigelow absent, to eliminate Bonita residents’ discounted parking sticker effective Dec. 10 saying the program was too costly.
A compromise was struck, however, allowing beachgoers to continue using the more expensive county parks pass at some parking spots. The current pass is good through the end of the year.
“It’s about fair opportunity throughout the county,” said Barbara Manzo, Parks and Recreation director.
Bonita residents, for several years, have been able to buy a special pass to access Bonita’s beach. This year the fee was $10. Others could pay parking meters or use some of the couple dozen free spaces scattered at access points farther north.
But the county realized it was losing money. Meters at Bonita Beach brought in $276,000, yet the cost to keep the beach and bathrooms clean is about $360,000, Manzo said. At a similarly sized parking lot in Fort Myers Beach where passes aren’t honored, Lynn Hall Memorial Park, the county parking meters brought in $655,000 last year.
Manzo said $2-per-hour meters will encourage turnover at the popular beach.
South of Doc’s Beach House, Bonita Beach Regional Park has room for about 90 vehicles. On the restaurant’s north side, Little Hickory Island Beach Park has about 25 spaces.
Manzo had proposed cutting all passes but she recommended on Tuesday to allow the county’s $60 pass at the smaller lot.
Commissioner Ray Judah said it was a good compromise.
“Everybody understood (the Bonita Beach pass) created an inequitable situation and needed to be phased out,” Judah said.
The move frustrated Bonita residents and City Council members. Manzo said she received about 250 e-mails from residents upset with the change.
Kathleen Sanders, a disabled resident, told Commissioners the cost of feeding a meter or buying a $60 parking pass is too high for her social security disability income.
“(Manzo’s) telling me about free parking spaces. That’s fine if you can get there,” Sanders said. She cannot drive or walk to the beach trolley and the approximately 40 free spots along the beach are usually taken early.
City Councilman Bill Lonkart, in his first appearance in Commission chambers, joined Councilwoman Martha Simons and Mayor Ben Nelson in asking the board to consider alternatives. Lonkart criticized the way the county ended its agreement with the city, made unilaterally notifying city council via letter in late October.
“I would suggest to you that we can come to common ground,” Lonkart said, “but we must work together on it.”
Nelson said he will continue to work toward other options, such as a system similar to Fort Lauderdale’s beach parking cards. There, residents can buy prepaid cards that are swiped at the beach with receipts placed in the windshield. This solution could also appeal to Lee County’s desire to turnover spaces, as each swipe of the card is valid for a couple of hours a day.
“I know it’s tough and I know it’s scary,” Nelson said of the county’s financial restraints, “but I don’t think it will be the nightmare you think it is. ... If the beaches of Lee County are important, this decision is important.”
While the county is currently running a $52 million budget shortfall, Commissioner Tammy Hall seemed open to finding a way to give a “break to residents and a little more of the burden to visitors.”
She also said she expressed concern that Doc’s Beach House employees will buy the county parks pass and take up the spaces meant for beachgoers, though Manzo said there was no way to regulate that except to ask the restaurant to park elsewhere.
In other news:
Commissioners, sitting as the Board of Port Commissioners, which governs the Southwest Florida International Airport, agreed to a lease with a bio-pharmaceuticals research company. VR Laboratories hopes to build its headquarters on 24 acres near the airport. The company that would develop plant-based medicines has said it hopes to employ hundreds. The project is pending funding from federal grants. Lee County recently approved a $5 million incentive for the company as part of the county’s drive to diversify its economy.
John Wilson, director of Lee County Public Safety director, said business owners affected by last week’s gas outage still have no identifiable resource for loss reimbursements. Commissioners could request through the state that the Small Business Administration make loans available. However, Commission Chairman Frank Mann said there hasn’t been a big enough outcry for such cumbersome actions. Mann said once the responsible parties are identified, all citizens can seek compensation through the court system.
The county’s cremation fee was increased to $40 from $30 to help fund the cost of mandatory death certificate reviews when a cremation is requested. This also translates to an approximately $12,000 raise for the medical examiner, who receives 30 percent of this fee.
Connect with Tara E. McLaughlin at www.naplesnews.com/staff/tara-mclaughlin/