ST. PETE BEACH — Residents living near the Pass-a-Grille Beach Community Church are angry over what they say is a commercial parking lot for weekend beachgoers in the middle of a residential neighborhood.
So far, more than 60 have signed petitions asking the City Commission to deny the church's request for a permit to continue to operate a commercial parking lot.
The petition, submitted to the commission last week, says the church's parking activities endanger "pedestrian safety and welfare of children playing" on their residential streets.
The commission will consider the church's permit request at its June 28 meeting.
The Rev. Keith Haemmelmann, the church's senior minister, said the weekend parking program is necessary to support activities of the nearly 60 teens in the church's youth ministry.
"All the parking fees go to support the youth. The only people who will lose if the city stops this are the youth. They do tons of community work," said Haemmelmann.
The 1,000-member church, founded in 1911, is at 107 16th Ave. in the middle of a residential neighborhood. The parking lot is in the rear on 17th Avenue.
Neal Blackburn, who organized the petition drive, has lived directly across from the church's parking lot for about 18 years and until earlier this year had no problem with church youth occasionally parking beachgoers' cars for money.
"It had started really small," Blackburn said, "with kids doing it once in a while to raise money for their youth program. My wife and I thought it was charming and we even gave them chairs and umbrellas to use."
But earlier this year, he said, signs advertising $10-a-day parking appeared every weekend, often attracting over a hundred cars a day.
"We have 200 people or more walking by our houses on their way to the beach every weekend. There is noise and trash," Blackburn said.
Public metered parking at $1.50 an hour is only a block away on Gulf Way, but is often full by noon — about the time the church starts allowing cars to park in its lot, according to Blackburn.
"It was ridiculous. I decided I had to put a stop to it," Blackburn said. "Then I found out a lot of people were even angrier about the church parking lot.
After he complained to the city, community development director Jennifer Bryla issued a cease and desist order directing the church to remove its parking signs and stop charging fees until its permit application could be reviewed.
For two subsequent weekends, the church had weddings scheduled and did not park beachgoers' cars, Haemmelmann said.
But on Sunday and Monday of Memorial Day weekend, the church did park beachgoer cars. Instead of charging a $10-a-day fee, church youth are now handing each driver a flier describing the church's youth program and asking for a "donation equal to general beach parking ($10)."
Money raised this year will fund the church's youth group trip to New Mexico where they hope to help native American families, according to Haemmelmann.
He stressed that the church has been parking beachgoers for years. At first this happened only on holidays until about five years ago when the church hired an outside firm to park cars in its lot every weekend.
That firm's city parking permit eventually expired and beginning in 2014 the youth ministry took over the program, Haemmelmann said.
Those explanations do not mollify Blackburn, however.
"The church is teaching kids how to get around city ordinances,'' he said. "I couldn't be more upset about it."
He said the increased traffic to the city's beaches in recent years has increased the number of cars seeking places to park.
"It's having a grossly negative impact on the quality of life here," Blackburn said.