CLEARWATER — People headed to Clearwater Beach later this year will pay more to park if they want a prime spot near the sand.
At a work session Tuesday, Clearwater City Council members largely supported the decision made by City Manager Bill Horne, saying that it had been a decade since the last hike.
But they also braced for a backlash. The cost of parking in some popular lots will increase by a dollar or more an hour. Some beachside spots soon could cost up to $3 an hour.
"No matter what we charge, someone is always going to say it's too expensive. We're going to be criticized no matter what we do," Mayor George Cretekos said.
The increases will take effect after spring break, will help pay for keeping the city's white-sand beach clean and will create more turnover during peak hours, said Eric Wilson, the city's parking system manager.
The changes will also create some parking permits for people who live on the beach, lengthen hours of meter enforcement, and provide about 140 monthly permit spaces for employees of beach businesses. Last fall, some of those employees had complained about losing spaces.
Under the new plan, free parking will be a thing of the past, with 220 formerly free spaces getting meters to add to the 1,170 already in place.
"Free parking was never part of the definition of creating a better parking system," Horne said.
The spots being designated for beach employees aren't likely to be enough to meet demand, but business owners must take responsibility for their workers' transportation needs, Wilson said.
"There's no way I can provide 100 percent of parking for employees," he said.
City staff met with beach businesses and residents to gather input on the changes. The changes are the result of a two-year study of how to make beach parking more equitable and efficient, Wilson said.
Money beach visitors put in meters ends up in the city's parking fund, which pays for lifeguards and a daily raking of portions of the beach, among other uses.
Parking fund dollars might also be used to build a new parking garage for the Clearwater Marine Aquarium's proposed downtown facility and possibly another parking garage in the Rockaway area of the beach. But Horne said parking prices weren't increased to raise cash for a new parking garage.
Wilson told the council that the city doesn't have an estimate of how much money the price increases will raise. But raking the beach and maintaining the parking system's infrastructure are growing more expensive, he said.
Here are some of the changes that will take effect after spring break:
• The 145-space Rockaway lot between Frenchy's Rockaway Grill and the Palm Pavilion costs $1.25 an hour on the weekends and during peak tourist season. It will jump to $2.50 an hour. The 139-space Pier 60 lot will rise to $3 an hour during the same periods, as will the 65-space lot on S Gulfview now closed for a staging area for construction of a hotel at the old Adam's Mark site.
• Enforcement hours will be lengthened at popular lots. For example, the 79 spaces at the Family Aquatic Center & Recreation Center, 51 Bay Esplanade, will be enforced until 11 p.m., five hours longer than now.
• Residential parking permits will be available for $75 a year..
• Parking at the Clearwater Marina will be revamped by installing dozens of meters and capping the time limit at 30 minutes.
Council member Doreen Hock-DiPolito suggested that a public meeting be held for mainland city residents to voice their opinion about the increases, but her idea didn't gain any traction.
"It might after Thursday," said Hock-DiPolito, referring to the City Council's regular meeting Thursday evening in City Hall.
The item isn't scheduled to be discussed again by the City Council, Horne said. But he will consider making some tweaks, including one monthly rate for beach employee permits instead of hiking rates for peak season.
Hock-DiPolito said she expects a backlash from city residents about the price hikes, but still thinks it was the right thing to do.
More emphasis needs to be placed on alternative transportation to the beach to help the parking crunch, she said, including bike sharing, water taxis, maybe even a monorail.
Horne said the changes shouldn't been seen as a way to chase lower-income visitors from an increasingly upscale beach environment.
"My whole motivation really is geared around better parking services, taking into account the needs of everybody," he said.
Charlie Frago can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4159. You can follow him on Twitter @CharlieFrago. To write a letter to the editor, visit tampabay.com/letters.