Collier changes rules for businesses operating at county boat ramps

Jake Allen
Naples Daily News

Collier County is changing rules for commercial businesses at county boat ramps in an effort to address overcrowding and parking shortages at certain sites.  

"We need to figure out how to have a balance of recreational and commercial users, which is our goal,” said Melissa Hennig, the beach and water manager for the county’s Parks and Recreation Department.  “At the same time, we need to comply with existing laws and zoning rules.” 

Most of the focus from county officials, staff, business owners and the Marco Island City Council has been on Caxambas Park, where the issues are most prevalent.  

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Visitation has increased 149% from 2010 to 2020 at county boat parks while paid boat launches have increased 31% from 2018 to 2020, Hennig said.  

The county’s boat parks, including Caxambas on Marco Island, were originally developed for recreational boating with parking primarily for trailers, Hennig said.   

The original intent of commercial use at boat parks was to allow the marine industry access for sea trials, she said.  

Now, 76% of commercial launch permits are issued to companies providing ecotourism and waster-based recreational activities such as kayaking, jet skiing and charter fishing, Hennig said.  

County commissioners approved several strategies for staff to pursue to try and mitigate the issues.  

A rehabilitated manatee slips into the water Tuesday, April 5, 2016, at the Caxambas Pass boat ramp on Marco Island.

Most of the strategies were recommended to commissioners by the county’s parks and recreation advisory board, which held two meetings to discuss the issues with county boat ramps.  

The advisory board meetings were attended by hundreds of business owners and employees, who had heard it was a possibility that businesses were going to be shut out of Caxambas Park all together.  

“The reality is when I spoke before Marco City Council, they backed off and basically challenged us to come up with some recommendations,” said Commissioner Rick LoCastro, whose district includes Marco Island.  “A lot of these recommendations are almost specifically for Caxambas.” 

Short-term strategies that were approved by commissioners for county staff to pursue include limiting the number of annual commercial launch permits issued by the county to 180.  

This will take effect next year and is equivalent to the number of launch permits issued by county staff this year.   

"We have two goals. One is to make sure current operators at the current level are not hurt. The way we do that is grandfathering all of those companies in,” said Commissioner Burt Saunders. “The other goal is we want to reduce the number of operators out there. We want that to occur over time. You freeze things the way they are right now so nobody gets hurt.” 

The idea is that some of the businesses that will be issued permits in 2022 won’t apply in future years so the number of permits issued by the county can be reduced over time, Saunders said.   

Other short-term strategies approved by commissioners include having staff manage the Caxambas parking lot, ramp and docks every day of the week and using a message board on Collier Boulevard to advise motorists when the parking lot is full and closed.  

Commercial permit holders will also have to encourage their customers to use rideshare services or shuttle their customer to county boat ramps. 

The county's short-term plan increases launch fees by an amount to be determined, and commercial use and site plan amendments will be sought at Caxambas Park.

The county will consider adding parking at the county boat park in Goodland, according to the short-term solutions approved by commissioners.  

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Commercial permit holders will have to carry liability insurance indemnifying Collier County and will not be able to use a county park as their business address under the solutions.  

Collier County Commissioner Rick LoCastro speaks during a board meeting on May 11, 2021.

County staff will also continue identifying possible sites for new public boat ramps or parking.  

The county will adjust launch permit regulations as necessary and will identify funding sources for additional county boat ramps and parking lots, according to the solutions approved by commissioners.  

Several commercial business owners who operate at county boat ramps attended commissioner’s Tuesday meeting.  

Christian Spencer, one of the commercial business owners, said the county should add parking spaces at Caxambas Park where there is room.  

Josh Erickson suggested the county require businesses to obtain offsite parking to operate at Caxambas and shuttle their customers to the site, but Jesse Karen said many companies can’t afford to have offsite parking for customers.  

The county is going to monitor new regulations at the boat ramps and for commercial permits and will be flexible about making changes depending on results, LoCastro said.  

“I know a lot of these seem like huge muscle movements,” LoCastro said. “The reason these seem like such muscle movements is because we haven't done anything over all these years.

"We are trying to just slow down a little so we can maintain what's happening at Caxambas, Goodland and the other parks,” he said.