For many years, Beach residents and frequent visitors to the island have known that they could always find their preferred taxi cab company at the 7-11 store at 1301 Estero Blvd. Taxis were allowed to line up, rotate to the front spot and compete for fares, while those needing a cab could take the time to enter the store, purchases items and exit to look for one of their favorite drivers in line.
Times have changed. During the past year, only one company, Beach Taxi, has been granted use of the site. The others have been shooed away. The controversy has at least one company, Paradise Beach Taxi, seeking legal advice and an intervention from the Town of Fort Myers Beach.
At a recent workshop, Town officials discussed that situation, a obligatory need for a taxi stand and a requested rate cap.
As of Oct. 29, Beach Taxi was the only cab company legally permitted to use the 7-11 site as a taxi stand.
"The owner of Beach Taxi managed to convince the operator of the 7-11 to provide an exclusive use contract, meaning that his taxi company is the only one to use that site," said Town Manager Terry Stewart. "The other taxi companies seem to think there is some vested right for that 'stand' on private property."
Questions about proper zoning have been raised. Since the action has occurred longer than the Town's incorporation, zoning has been considered 'grandfathered' or listed as a legal, nonconforming use. The Town has a vehicles for hire ordinance, dating back to 2000.
Legal representatives for Paradise Beach Taxi claim that there has never been a 'use permit' for the particular activity issued to that address, believe the 7-11 owner should apply for a use permit for a transit terminal and be denied unless it is not restricted to one taxi company. An official zoning violation complaint was made by Michael Roeder of Knott Ebelini Hart Attorneys at Law.
In a letter addressed to a specific Town official, Roeder wrote: "We still believe that citing the 7-11 for a zoning violation is the easiest solution, with the cure of the violation being that they revert to the informal, non-exclusive system that prevailed previous to the new franchise."
In response, Town Community Development Coordinator Walter Fluegel stated the issue is more of a private property matter and that the current land development code's definition of "transit terminal" does not fit the activity occurring at the 7-11. The LDC does not contain a definition for taxi stand.
"In the interest of 7-11 and in reviewing the situation, it was my opinion that it just does not meet the definition of a transit terminal," he said.
At the workshop, Council members agreed with Town officials that there is no enforcement issue at the questioned location unless the Town decided to regulate taxi companies.
"7-11 has no such legal document with anyone. That's a civil matter, one that the Town cannot get involved in," said Stewart. "It would be up to 7-11 to bring it back to its former state."
Town officials discussed other locations for cabs to assemble freely, but viable options were few and far between for such a service in a Town right-of-way in the downtown zoning district.
The "closed" Center Street was one option identified, but it was not found to be insufficient after further discussion. The upcoming Estero Boulevard reconstruction could be an opportunity to create a taxi stand as well. Finding funds to build a 'stand' was another matter.
The 7-11 in question appears to be the ideal spot based on familiarity and convenience.
"It's always been known by people who come here every year that they can always go to 7-11 for their last stop of the night to get whatever they need before they go home," said Williams. "If you've ever been down there at 2 a.m. in the morning, there are 50 people standing at that 7-11 trying to get a taxi."
Williams showed Stewart a document that depicts where taxis used to huddle as part of county ROW, but the property line could not be confirmed.
"Let me caution you," said Fluegel. "The property lines from the property appraiser's GIS (geographic information system) are notoriously off."
Local Motion Taxi is celebrating its 25th year of providing rides to customers on the Beach. Many of the current taxi companies began when former drivers branched off from Local Motion to start their own business.
"They were the first taxi company ever on this island," said Owner Tim Williams, who is the operator for both Paradise Beach Taxi, Paradise Beach Limo and Local Motion Taxi. "Most of those cab companies came from Local Motion."
Taxi fare rates are another matter. Williams claims not all taxi companies are charging the same rate for a standard ride. During season, many off-beach cab companies also come over the bridge and add to the fare competition.
Should all taxi companies charge the same rate for a standard ride?
"There should be a set rate," Williams said. "Our rates have been the same for five years with $3 a pick-up and $2 a mile."
To set a rate cap, Stewart said the Town would have to take on an active regulation, which could be a daunting task. Regulating fares involves details and cost.
"That would mean you'd have to inspect them, require that they have meters and see how much they charge a mile per minute," said Stewart. "It is not inexpensive to regulate taxis."
For those who hail a taxi cab, take caution on what you are being charged for your next ride.
Council will hold a future workshop once Town staff has a chance to investigate further on taxi stands, price regulations, number of licenses, etc.