Commission denies permit for rental carts
The Sanibel Planning Commission denied a conditional use permit tied to a proposed low-speed vehicle rental business at its recent meeting, as well as approved a variance for a boat dock and lift.
On May 22, the commission voted 6-1 to deny an application from Laura DeBruce and Jeffrey Blackman for the permit needed to establish Sanibel Carts at 2330 Palm Ridge Road, Suite 15. The couple had proposed to store and rent no more than seven “street-legal” electric-powered carts.
Commissioner Roger Grogman was the sole opposing vote on the dais.
In addition, the commissioners voted 6-1 to approve a variance for a dock parcel at 6428 Pine Ave., owned by Randy Wayne White and Wendy Webb. It allows for the installation of an elevator-style boat lift that will extend about 9 feet 2 inches farther than the maximum permitted waterward extension, as well as allows for the lift and the existing dock to be closer than 15 feet from the side property lines.
The couple also applied for a development permit to implement the proposed variance and construct the lift immediately adjacent to the existing boat dock, which also was proposed to be modified.
The sole opposing vote was made by Commissioner Matthew Kirchner.
The commission discussed the cart rental business for nearly three hours, which included public comment from residents, a former planning director and the Committee of the Islands opposing it. City staff recommended denial, citing inconsistencies with Sanibel Plan and Land Development Code.
City planner Josh Ooyman explained that staff determined the carts are comparable to rental mopeds and motorized scooters used by drivers unfamiliar with their operation, meaning they could exacerbate traffic delays and create unsafe situations with respect to faster traffic and passing, tailgating or such.
Topping out at 25 mph, the carts are classified as street legal and could only operate on roads.
Ooyman also explained that introducing rental vehicles goes against the Sanibel Plan’s objectives to reduce auto ridership, auto volume and tourist rental car needs. He added that the proposal would serve to frustrate the provisions and policies of the Plan by encouraging more auto ridership on the island.
“Staff finds that the proposed use is inconsistent,” Ooyman said.
In addition, he pointed out that staff had concerns that:
– The proposed use may adversely affect adjacent on-site uses with regard to internal storage – keeping the carts inside the business – and the external maneuvering and staging of the carts
– The applicant had not sufficiently demonstrated the proposed use would not adversely affect traffic flow to a significantly greater extent than permitted uses
– The low-speed vehicle rental use has not been demonstrated to be inherently beneficial to the community or reasonably necessary to its convenience
“Planning staff finds that the applicant has not demonstrated that the proposed use is consistent with the provisions set forth in the Sanibel Plan or the conditional use requirements of the Sanibel Land Development Code as referenced herein,” Ooyman said. “Therefore, staff does not support approval of the subject application.”
DeBruce and Blackman shared their disbelief at the staff’s findings with the dais.
“It kind of took us by surprise when they did not recommend approval of our application,” she said.
DeBruce noted that the carts are “greener” alternatives to gas-powered vehicles, that many progressive municipalities are adopting policies for electric vehicles and that Sanibel residents already own them.
“Every trip in a carbon emission vehicle does harm to the environment,” Blackman said, adding that the rentals would not add to the traffic. “It’s a replacement trip (when used), not an additional trip.”
He noted that vehicles traveling behind a cart but wanting to go 35 mph from Tarpon Bay Road to Blind Pass on Sanibel Captiva Road would only experience a four-minute delay, according to a traffic study conducted. In the same sense, the commute on Periwinkle Way would be a two-minute delay.
“The city engineers had no objection to the traffic study,” Blackman said.
DeBruce pointed out that people would have to be at least 21 years old to rent them.
“An electric cart is nothing like a moped,” Blackman said. “Anyone licensed to drive an automobile can easily drive an electric cart.”
The couple emphasized that the business would only carry seven carts.
“We can commit to that,” she said.
Blackman emphasized that the provisions cited in the staff’s findings are for automobiles.
“Low-speed vehicles are not. Then they conflate electric carts with mopeds or scooters,” he said.
The couple also explained to the commission that they did not receive the staff’s final report until the Friday evening before the planning meeting. They said this was following months of conversations.
“The first we read of these concerns was on Friday evening,” Blackman said.
“They did not share one of them with us until Friday at 6 o’clock,” DeBruce added.
Roy Gibson, acting director for the Sanibel Planning Department, reported to the dais that he recalled pointing out use concerns and that the couple requested to be placed on the earliest meeting agenda.
“They did seek some expedition for your consideration of this application,” he said, noting that it is unusual for staff to prepare and produce a report as quickly as it did for the proposed low-speed rental business. “We did not know the details of what they were going to propose with their application.”
Vice Chair Dirk deWerff asked if the item could be pulled from the agenda for future review.
City Attorney Ken Cuyler reported that the applicant or staff could request a continuance.
DeBruce and Blackman expressed their desire to move forward with the vote.
Prior to the vote, Grogman questioned if the Sanibel Plan is too exclusive and should be updated to include the newer forms of motorization of the modern day, such as electric-powered carts.
“This is not an automobile, this is a cart,” he said. “I’m saying, things have changed.”
Ketteman pointed out that there are other low-speed vehicles on the island. He explained that denying the application for safety issues should not be done when there are broader safety issues that exist.
Commissioner Richard Johnson brought up a related question.
“Do we have an opportunity to address some of the similar uses that are coming on the island today?” he asked of city staff. “Other low-speed vehicles that are coming onto the island?”
Gibson reported that there is no ordinance in place to prohibit or restrict such other vehicles.
Ketteman also questioned the correlation between an increase in traffic and the carts being rented.
“It’s seems to be it’s logically inconsistent,” he said.
Others on the dais voiced concern about the safety and speed of the carts.
“We’ve all been frustrated by the traffic on Sanibel,” Commissioner Karen Storjohann said, noting that anything that additionally slows down traffic is a problem. “These vehicles will definitely slow things down, even if there’s only seven of them.”
The public also had an opportunity to speak before the vote was cast.
“I truly think there’s a big big safety issue here, in addition to the Sanibel Plan (inconsistencies),” resident Claudia Burns said.
Former Planning Director Bruce Rogers, the principal author of the Sanibel Plan and Sanibel Land Development Code, read a statement that he had prepared, which was submitted into the record.
He reported that any proposal that puts additional motor vehicles on the road is not in accord with the Sanibel Plan, that renting motor vehicles inevitably adds more motor vehicles, that adding motor vehicles is not in accord with the Plan and that rental vehicles are not an alternative to an automobile.
“The applicant, by proposing to add rental motor vehicles, is by definition not exploring ways to reduce auto ridership,” Rogers said. “Quite to the contrary, they are making access to motor vehicles more convenient.”
Resident Larry Schopp, who also spoke as a representative for COTI, voiced agreement.
“My reason for opposing the application is it fails to meet one key element – consistency with the Sanibel Plan,” he said. “It is not in accord with the Sanibel Plan.”
Following the vote, DeBruce and Blackman shared their thoughts.
“We’re very disappointed,” she said. “We truly believe this is just what Sanibel needs.”
When asked why they turned down the chance to request a continuance and work on staff’s last-minute concerns, DeBruce explained that there was no way the proposal would pass with the phrasing used.
Blackman re-emphasized that the carts were inaccurately compared to automobiles.
“This isn’t it,” DeBruce said, adding that they are going to regroup.
Blackman noted that there is an appeals process.
VARIANCE FOR DOCK PARCEL
Also at the meeting, the dock parcel variance passed, with staff’s recommended conditions.
Ooyman explained that staff determined the dock, constructed using an emergency building permit issued after Hurricane Charley, is nonconforming in it is closer to the side property lines than the required 15 feet. It would not be possible to bring it into compliance as it is a 30-foot wide property.
He reported that the applicant is proposing to install the new two-piling elevator-style boat lift – without outside pilings – parallel to the outer edge of the boat dock terminal platform.
“Although the reduction of the terminal platform width would further reduce the variance to the waterward extension, staff finds that the proposed lift does not project into the waterway or obstruct the navigable channel more than a boat moored adjacent to the existing dock,” the staff report states.
Johnson questioned if similar requests had previously been recommended for approval.
“This is a pretty common variance request that receive approval,” Ooyman said.
He noted that staff received numerous public comments on the proposal, many in opposition.
“Staff is aware of concerns from neighbors about the navigability of the adjacent canal,” Ooyman said.
Attorney Steven Hartsell, who represented the applicant, told the commission that his clients considered other options in order to eliminate or reduce the need for the variance. They looked at narrowing the width of the dock, shortening the finger pier and trimming a nearby mangrove.
Eventually, they settled on a shorter boat lift than planned – a 7-foot, 11-inch wide one.
“Having minimized that lift as much as he can – he has addressed those concerns,” Hartsell said of client White.
Prior to the vote, several people spoke during pubic comment.
Mark Calkin, who resides to the north side of the canal from the applicant, pointed out that there is erosion along his shoreline, which he attributed to boaters hugging closer to his side when passing by.
“We’re losing property into the canal,” he said, noting that the new lift will push them even closer. “When people navigate down a canal, they’re not going to worry about the mangroves, they’re going to worry about the boat docks.”
Resident Bernard Ortwein questioned what hardship on the applicant warranted a variance.
“Since he can still have a boat, since it’s not causing him any financial damage, what is his undue hardship? What is the hardship?” he said. “I want to hear some hardship that he’s going to have to have you (the commission) change the law.”
Another neighbor, John Scholz, echoed that sentiment.
“The owner brought the property – he knew what he had. He can use a boat there,” he said. “If this is granted, earlier denials and potentially future denials for such extensions for boat lifts into the canals will be problematic.”
City Councilman Jason Maughan spoke as a resident and neighbor in support of the application.
“This is a neighborhood that I grew up in,” he said. “I’ve been there for 40 years.”
Maughan expressed his belief that people have the right, as citizens, to develop their lots.
“It puts it nestled inside a mangrove there,” he said, adding that the property has always had a dock in one form or another. “There is no interference whatsoever with navigation there, in my opinion.”
Maughan noted that he always supported proposed lifts when he was on the commission.
Some of the commissioners shared their thoughts before casting the vote.
Marks pointed out that boat lifts keep gas and oil out of the water, improving water quality for all.
“If you improve something, you shouldn’t have to prove a hardship,” he said.
Kirchner indicated that he believed the request was simply to make the parcel more profitable.
IN OTHER NEWS
– Residents spoke out during public comment at the start of the meeting against a pending minor subdivision application at 3869 West Gulf Drive. The applicant is proposing to demolish the existing residence and divide the 4.56-acre property into four parcels of equal width for single-family use.
Cuyler recommended that the dais wait on making comments as it is under staff review.
– The commission voted 7-0 to recommend that the Sanibel City Council adopt a proposed ordinance which would amend the Land Development Code by adding language to define the term “fill.”
City planner Benjamin Pople explained that an owner added fill to his property without a land development permit and the city’s case was later dismissed in favor of the property owner.
“Because the Land Development Code does not contain a specific definition for fill,” he said. “The code officer found that the city could remedy our side of the situation by adopting an ordinance.”
Pople noted that the city does not prohibit fill, but would like permitting procedures in place.
He added that planning, natural resources and public works worked on the ordinance.
– The Permitting Process Review Subcommittee set for May 22 has been rescheduled to June 12.