PORT RICHEY — As Memorial Day and the summer boating season approach, the city of Port Richey finds itself in turmoil over parking along the city's waterfront.
City Manager Vince Lupo admits that parking is a "dire commodity" in the waterfront district, which continues to boom with activity. And, in recent months, the city has changed the way it handles parking enforcement there.
The reception has been a mixed bag.
Boat trailer parking has been eliminated from most areas of the waterfront, a prohibition that has long been part of the city code, though not enforced, Lupo said.
"And some of those people who unfortunately didn't read the signs or didn't believe we were going to enforce the laws, their (trailers) were towed. I regret doing it, but it was a safety issue more than anything else," he said.
Trailers that were towed were "sticking out into the road causing a hazard," he said.
Lupo said the problem is that the Port Richey waterfront has one of the county's few "viable" boat ramps at Nicks Park, at 7929 Bayview St., which can hold 17 to 20 boat trailers.
A lot across from Nicks Park has recently been opened by SunCruz Casino, providing more trailer spots, which Lupo believes will help alleviate the problem.
However, outside of those spots, Lupo said, boat trailer parking on the waterfront is illegal.
The result of the parking shortage for trailers has been a free-for-all in the parking lots at adjacent restaurants such as Hooters and Seaside Inn. In April, Hooters' prominent sign in front of its restaurant warned that boat trailers would be towed "per city of PR." A similar sign sat in front of the lot used by Seaside. The sign came about after the city informed the business that it could be cited for allowing boat trailer parking on its property.
Hooters officials also learned through city code enforcement officials that the business could be cited for allowing boat trailers to park there. The tighter controls on parking have been beneficial to the restaurant, said spokeswoman Connie Romito.
"We had discussions on it, and I guess they had the ability to fine us for people leaving their trailers forever. For us, we have always worked with the city and think this will help us," Romito said. "When you have people leaving boat trailers, how many aren't necessarily dining? How many table turns have we lost? It's an awesome spot, and we want to see as many people as we can."
Not everyone on the waterfront is happy with what is happening, however, and one business owner says boat trailers are not the only issue — that selective enforcement is also a problem.
The co-owners of Gill Dawg bar and restaurant, Erik Suojanen and his wife, Colleen, received a notice of violation from the city April 27 stating that, without a site plan, vehicles cannot park on a grassy piece of property they own that provides about 20 spots — a parking area that Gill Dawn has used for years.
Erik Suojanen sent an email to dozens of local business owners and politicians, blasting the city for trying to crack down on his parking spaces.
"They are pushing me out of business by methodically causing great expenses while choking off revenue," he wrote.
Suojanen told the Tampa Bay Times he has no choice but to allow people to park across the street, but is working with the city to deal with the situation, including meetings to discuss building a parking lot on part of a prime piece of property that once held a mobile home park fronting U.S. 19. Suojanen is frustrated because he says Lupo has changed the game for him parking-wise since taking over as city manager in August.
Lupo said Suojanen needs to work with the city to come up with site plans for parking on any property he owns because, other than his existing paved parking, his properties are grass, on which city codes prohibit parking.
The city manager said all businesses in the waterfront district are being treated the same, including the developers of a new Whiskey Joe's restaurant planned for the district
"It's a level playing field. Whiskey Joe's must comply, just like Hooters must comply, just like Seaside must comply, just like Gill Dawg must comply," Lupo said. "Whether they like it or not, they must abide by the law. If they don't like it, come to council and change the law."