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Town lowers the boom on chair vendors

New ordinance calls for $1 million in insurance and much more

January 26, 2016
By John Morton - Editor ( , Fort Myers Beach Bulletin, Fort Myers Beach Observer

A few months back, Fort Myers Beach Mayor Anita Cereceda took a boat trip around Estero Island's northern tip and into the Gulf of Mexico. What was her first reaction to what she saw from her long-awaited view?

"I thought, 'Wow, our beach is just packed with chairs,'" she said in a tone of disappointment.

That's because she knew it wasn't just a busy day in the sun. She saw first hand how many chair vendors were choking off the beach and engaging in what she calls a turf war over dollars and space.

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Chairs and umbrellas for rent are a common sight near the public pier, where traffic is heavy and space is tight.

"It's an incredibly lucrative business, without regulation," she said.

That's no longer the case.

On Jan. 19, the Town Council passed an ordinance that regulates the vendors through a permitting process that requires by March 1 a $1 million liability policy, a site plan that's approved by the owner of the property upon which they operate, and if non-licensed proof they've been operating prior to Jan. 1 of 2015.

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"That insurance amount is standard in business," said Cereceda, who owns two downtown stores. "I know that's what my landlord requires."

When asked if the insurance deadline is too immediate, council member Rexann Hosafros said: "Last time I checked, it takes about an hour to get insurance."

The council also stuck with the tight deadline knowing peak season is around the corner.

"We need this in time for Spring Break," Cereceda said.

Problem got serious

The new ordinance could eliminate about 40 percent of the vendors, said Cereceda, who called the move one of great importance - "Especially when you consider how the beach is the town's greatest asset," she said.

"The proliferation of chair vendors is equal to or greater than any commercial development that you might feel is intrusive," she added. "Then we started hearing complaints about people being harassed by the vendors. That's when we knew something had to be done."

Cereceda said vendors were placing chairs beyond their boundaries, including the blocking of public beach-access points, and even right up to the water, limiting beach-walking room. Worse yet, beach-goers who tried to sit in front of or next to the chairs for sale were often being forced by vendors to move.

"No one shouldn't be able to expect anything but being relaxed and happy at our beaches," said Cereceda. "It shouldn't be a complicated procedure and they certainly shouldn't be harassed.

"It's been like the wild wild west out there."

Regarding enforcement of vendor behavior, Cereceda encourages beach-goers to immediately notify the town of any problems.

"It's three citations and you're out," she said.

The issue has been a growing one for years, Cereceda said, and it's a business featuring cash-under-the-table deals between property owners and vendors - 16 of which currently operate without a license. The town figures only four of these vendors will be grandfathered in.

What makes the issue even more convoluted is the fact that some vendors who were indeed granted permits, of which there are 20, got them improperly, according to Megan Will, the town's senior planner.

"Some didn't go through a proper process because there really wasn't one," she said.

Vendor behavior on the radar

The complaints regarding vendor behavior emerged last spring. Resident Roger Hamilton was among those who addressed the council at the time.

"I think many operate in a very business-like manner. They give the public a lot of room to come in and set their chairs down," he said. "Unfortunately, three of the four vendors between beach access No. 33 and No. 34 believe they own the beach and have the rights to use the entire beach from the dunes to the waterline."

But some vendors say it's a two-way street as far as behavior is concerned.

"I have people who will sit right in front of a customer, almost on top of them, or will even kick my chairs out of the way," said Shawn Wilcox, co-owner for about a year of a nameless but licensed business on the property of a private home in the 1500 block of Estero Boulevard, between Avenue E and Avenue C, which sits between the access points mentioned by Hamilton. "I don't mind people sitting in front of my chairs, but can you please give me 5 feet? It's called beach etiquette."

Wilcox, who charges $15 a day for two lounges, two umbrellas and a table, is one of 20 vendors who has a permit. His neighbor to the south, Luke's Beach Club, does not hold a permit but has been in business for 29 years, according to Luke Manning, its owner.

"It's a joke," said Manning of the ordinance. "A bunch of us are chipping in to hire a lawyer. No one is telling us what to do."

No transfers for many

Meanwhile, non-conforming vendors who operate in front of small businesses or private property will no longer be able to pass along their licenses if they choose to sell. And those property owners wouldn't be able to offer up their land to someone else. That's because the new ordinance limits any new business to properties with 50 units or more, also known as resorts.

"It's not fair to tell the private properties this and then let the commercial properties monopolize," Wilcox said.

Vice-mayor Dan Andre voiced his concern about the non-transfer clause.

"This lessens the value of their business, which they can no longer recoup," he said. "Some have been in business for many years and it's not their fault there were no rules."

Countered Cereceda, "My job is not to protect the value of their business, but the safety of our residents and visitors."

Added Hosafros, in regard to the previous lack of an ordinance or proper permit procedures, "We can't make perpetuity to something that didn't exist in the first place."

Eric Ogilvie, who owns beachfront property on Avenue C, has All Island Water Sports selling chairs at his location in exchange for a commission.

"Not all vendors operate unprofessionally," he said. "And you don't want to see people needing to lug their chairs and umbrellas across busy Estero Boulevard. Why such an extreme reduction when need still exists?"

Will said the new rules that move rentals toward the resorts will in the end actually increase chair rental opportunities. Currently nine of the beach's 27 resorts have vendors on their properties.

Setbacks in place

During the permitting process, vendors' site plans, which must be property specific, will be reviewed and their dimensions will actually be measured through GPS by the town's staff in order to enforce boundaries.

Regarding setbacks for chair placement, here's among what the ordinance now calls for:

15 feet back from the wrack line, which is the daily-changing mark of where the high tide leaves its field of debris.

10 feet from either side of a beach-access corridor.

From the side, 10 feet or 10 percent of the width of a property, whichever is less.

An aisle between chairs 6 feet in width must be in place every 50 feet.

At least 200 feet from the wrack line and behind the dune line for overnight staging of chairs, with a 9 p.m. deadline.

Chris Schaab, a sole proprietor, has been renting chairs for 31 years on the beach. For the last six years, he's been between the Lani Kai and Hooters, also in that accesses 33 and 34 area, and said the side setbacks will be costly. His lot is only 50 feet wide, so he'll lose 5 feet on both sides, but won't have to deal with the 6-foot aisle rule.

"I'll have to tuck them in tighter but I'll still have to go from five sets of chairs to four, so I'll lose 12 chairs."

He said he's been charging $5 per chair his entire time on the beach and cringes at the thought of having to charge more to compensate.

"It's so over saturated," Schaab said.

As for Dean Kerkesner, the manager of Rebel Water Sports who operates near the public pier, he's attended council meetings for months, reminding them each time to not overreact.

"You can't judge the barrel by just a few bad apples," he said on Jan. 19.

Wilcox echoed those sentiments upon learning of the ordinance passing as he set up chairs the next morning.

"We've gone from one extreme to another," he said. "And it's all because of one guy."

Cereceda questions that.

"It's more than one guy causing problems," she said. "It's several."



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