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St. Pete Beach limits watercraft rentals at hotels

ST. PETE BEACH — No additional WaveRunners or other personal motorized watercraft will be allowed at the city's beachfront hotels.

Currently, there are only about a dozen Jet Skis registered along the city's hotel strip.

Now that number will never increase, according to a new ordinance passed by the City Commission Tuesday.

The debate over the safety of Jet Skis and other small watercraft began more than a year ago.

During a series of workshops and meetings last fall, the commission gradually concluded that there was no fair way to decide how many Jet Skis were too many or which of the beach resorts should be allowed to operate them from the beach.

Under the old rules, Jet Skis and other small watercraft were allowed in commercial and resort zoning districts, but had to be specially approved by the commission.

For a decade or more, the number of personal watercraft remained static, but interest in expanding the tourist attraction appeared to be growing among the city's hotels.

"This could become a Pandora's box," said City Manager Mike Bonfield during a commission workshop in October 2008.

At the commission's direction, Bonfield drafted a new ordinance limiting the number and location of personal watercraft.

For example, the city initially thought to require 300 feet of gulf frontage for each vessel over 16 feet in length and 100 feet of frontage for each personal watercraft.

Commissioners balked when they discovered the new rules would allow the number of Jet Skis to more than double.

"I do not want to double the number of personal watercraft vehicles and I am very concerned about increasing the number of boats on the beach," Commissioner Christopher Leonard said at the time.

The commission then considered eliminating watersports craft completely as a permitted conditional use on hotel and commercial property, but came to no conclusion.

Commissioner Linda Chaney predicted that unless the commission took action, there would be a "watersports gold rush."

That's exactly what happened.

In late November, the Tradewinds Island Resort application for four WaveRunners appeared on the commission agenda.

The commission voted narrowly (3-2) to approve the Tradewinds request, but restricted their approval to a single year, after which the resort will have to seek renewal of the permitted WaveRunners.

Chaney, who joined Harry Metz in opposing the action, warned that the commission's action only increased the potential for accidents.

"I don't believe this is in the best interest of public health, safety and welfare," she said.

Despite the approval of Tradewinds' WaveRunners, the commission did reach a consensus to bar additional WaveRunners and other personal watercraft on the beach.

Suggestions for new restrictions were sent to the city's Planning Board for review, but before the ordinance could come back for a vote by the commission, more personal watercraft requests began to flood City Hall.

In late January, two more hotels — the Sirata Beach Resort and the Travelodge — asked the commission to allow them to rent to their guests four and six Jet Skis, respectively, from their property.

A majority of the commission refused.

"I thought we made it clear that at this time we were not going to approve any more watersports," said Mayor Michael Finnerty. "I am not going to approve any of these applications tonight."

The commission did, however, approve larger tour boats to pick up tourists on the beach at the Travelodge, the Alden Resort and the Gulf Gate Resort.

Tuesday, the commission unanimously approved the Jet Skis limit, but decided to apply it only to motorized vessels under 16 feet in length. Kayaks, paddle boats, canoes and other nonmotorized vessels will still be allowed on the beach.

The new rules apply to the CG-1 and CG-2 commercial districts and the RFM Resort Facilities Medium zoning district, but have no effect on Jet Skis or other personal watercraft owned by residents.

"There is nothing here to prevent a private individual from using or owning a WaveRunner, it simply prevents the establishment of any new business," said development director Karl Holley.

St. Pete Beach limits watercraft rentals at hotels 03/14/09 [Last modified: Saturday, March 14, 2009 4:31am]
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