Parking fee increases, what action to take regarding a landmark city business and customary use of beaches are among the key topics addressed in recent meetings by the St. Pete Beach City Commission.
The second reading of a parking violation ordinance on July 24 met with final unanimous approval meaning that drivers would now pay more for infractions. The cost of fines for overtime parking at meters will increase from $30 to $50 and parking on streets or lots restricted to residential permits will go up from $40 to $60. Tickets can be re-issued every two hours so a driver illegally parking on a residential street to enjoy a full day at the beach from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. could be issued $240 in fines.
Vice Mayor Melinda Pletcher explained the reason the city has prioritized and increased street parking fines is so that spaces will be available for those with residential decal permits. For instance, older homes in Pass-a-Grille south of the Don CeSar were built without on-site parking.
“We found that $40 was not an effective deterrent for visitors” who need a place to park to go to the beach, she said.
The fines “are not for us to make money,” said Mayor Al Johnson. They are “for the benefit of the residents.”
At their May 26 meeting, commissioners gave final approval to a hike in parking meter rates from $2.25 to $2.75 per hour.
Fate of Beach Theatre
When a small town’s movie theater closes, it typically causes a nostalgic stir among generations of patrons, but in St. Pete Beach, the commission is also taking an interest.
When the Beach Theatre was open, it was such a complement to the Corey Avenue businesses, said Pletcher at the July 10 meeting.
“It’s amazing how many cities have purchased theaters like this and it’s been very successful,” said Commissioner Terri Finnerty. “The Beach Theatre is such a landmark.”
Pletcher noted that because of the theater’s historic designation, tax incentives are available for any nonprofit or group of private investors who may wish to purchase the building and restart the business.
The independent, one-screen theater opened on January 15, 1940 and is located at 315 Corey Avenue. When it officially closed on November 18, 2012 for financial reasons, it had been open for 72 years. Toward the end, it featured frequent Saturday night showings of the Rocky Horror Picture Show where fans dress as characters from the film.
City Attorney Andrew Dickman reported that the theater is part of a complicated and therefore lengthy probate process following the death of its owner, Mike France, a screenwriter with national-level credits in films like “Cliffhanger” and the “GoldenEye.” France, a St. Petersburg native, bought the theater in 2007 for $850,000 and died in 2013. Dickman has notified France’s estate regarding the city’s interest in the property. Commissioners asked that Dickman provide probate updates at each meeting.
“Do we want to own it?” said Johnson. “The only time I would want us to get involved in any type of ownership is if somebody came in and was going to buy it and tear it down and turn it into something we don’t want.” The city purchasing the theater “is only a last resort.”
Commissioner Ward Friszolowski agreed and said the city should research what other municipalities have done with historic theaters.
Who Owns the Beach?
Florida’s new law relating to beach ownership went into effect on July 1 after being signed into law by Governor Rick Scott in March.
In some cases, HB 631 has been confusing regarding what constitutes a private beach, said Johnson in a column he wrote in the city’s official June 14 newsletter.
Much of the beach areas in St. Pete Beach are privately owned, he said. He also noted that in 1974, a Florida Supreme Court case established what is known as the “doctrine of customary use.”
According to Johnson, this means “that if the recreational use of the sandy area adjacent to mean high tide” has been continually in use by the public for many years without dispute, the owner “can make any use of his property that is consistent with public use and that does not interfere with the right of the public to enjoy the dry sand beach.”
Johnson noted that HB 631 is a process change and not an ownership or rights change. Now, “if a municipality finds the need to establish customary use of privately owned beaches it must hold a public hearing, provide formal notice of intent, provide notice to the affected property owners and file a complaint with a circuit court who will determine whether the land is subject to the doctrine.”
Though the city does not own all of the beach area, it will continue with cleaning and policing efforts, said Johnson.
“Those of us who don’t own beach property still share our piece of paradise with countless visitors, tourists and snow-birds come here all year,” he said. “In a nutshell, HB 631 doesn’t change anything regarding the use of our beaches relative to the right of ownership.”
Dickman gave a presentation to commissioners about HB 631 during their August 28 regular meeting.
For legal information relating to ownership of local beaches, visit pinellascounty.org/environment/coastalmngmt/hb631.htm.
Concession Vendor Update
At the August 14 meeting, City Manager Wayne Saunders reported that negotiations with United Park Services for the Pass-a-Grille and Upham Beach concession stands were discontinued. He requested that commission members consider the remaining two vendor bids, one of which was from Michael Janecek, the current concessions manager at both locations. Janecek manages Starson LLC of Clearwater, which was incorporated on March 8, 2018.
Janecek reiterated his continuing interest in remaining the operator.
As a result, commissioners unanimously approved an action item for Saunders to bring back a proposed agreement between the city and Janecek for final consideration.
At the August 28 regular meeting, commissioners unanimously approved a five-year concessions lease with Starson LLC beginning August 31 including an option for a five-year renewal.
Janecek “has agreed to all of the conditions in the agreement,” said Saunders.
Johnson said, “I understand the people we were originally negotiating with got two contracts to do the new pier in St. Petersburg. That’s why they backed out.”
Starson LLC will offer the sale of food along with beer and wine without doing social media promotions regarding liquor, said Pletcher.
“It’s a snack bar not a beach bar,” said Johnson.
According to the agreement, concessions will also include the sale of clothing, souvenirs, sundries, gifts and other merchandise approved of by the city. Public restrooms will be open from 6 a.m. to 30 minutes after sunset every day regardless of the operating hours of the concession stands or weather conditions. The restrooms will be cleaned daily and checked hourly for cleanliness and supplies.
Red Tide Response Plan
In a Facebook post on September 18, Johnson said “the red tide situation in St. Pete Beach and Pinellas County as a whole has gotten much worse. Many folks have been asking what to do. The city has a response plan and it will work best if all of us pitch in and do our part.”
According to the plan, “city staff will be collecting dead fish in the wrack line on the gulf beach every day for as long as the Red Tide persists. Therefore, our collection will not result in a truly clean beach but our efforts will help keep the accumulation down.”
Residents on the Gulf of Mexico beach side of the city who wish to assist in the collection effort are asked to place dead sea life inside heavy-duty plastic bags that are tightly closed. The plan states that theses bags should then be placed next to public trash cans where city staff will collect them during their daily runs for final disposal in a designated area of the county’s landfill.
Those living on the bay side of the island that have properly bagged dead sea life are asked to call the city’s Public Works department at 727-363-9243 to schedule a red tide collection pick up at curb side Monday through Friday starting at 2 p.m.
Hoteliers and condo associations that wish to assist in the collection effort are asked to call the public works department. City staff will provide information regarding the locations of the nearest dumpster containers meant specifically for the disposal of properly sealed garbage bags containing dead sea life relating to red tide.
Johnson encourages people to check the following county-level website for frequent updates regarding water conditions pinellascounty.org/environment/watershed/red-tide.htm.
Information from the Tampa Bay Times was used in this report.