Boaters pay to play

More at Fort De Soto hand over a $5 fee for parking trailers, while some never heard of it.

Published July 5, 2006

ST. PETERSBURG - Fort De Soto Park, long the treasure of Florida parks and beaches, has always been accessible to visitors willing to dig for pocket change for tolls.

Over the weekend, the parking lot near the park's boat launch was full of revelers looking for adventure. Scores of trucks hauling trailers spilled out of the overflow lot.

The fun stopped at the boat ramp for some boaters, however, when they learned of a $5-a-day trailer parking fee.

Greg Smith, 38, of Auburndale was with a group of friends from Polk County about to launch All Time High, a 32-foot custom-painted Stinger boat.

"Why should we pay for Pinellas County?" he asked. "We're from Polk."

Chuck Tubbs, who frequently hauls his 18-foot Glaston boat from Riverview to Pinellas County boat launches, agreed. "It's a little absurd," Tubbs said.

The fee's not new. In September 2003, Pinellas County commissioners voted for the implementation of a $5-a-day or $100-a-year boat trailer parking fee at eight county boat ramps.

The system began in July 2004 with boaters expected to leave $5 in a sealed envelope to be placed in a drop box or risk a $30 parking ticket.

However, little more than half of boaters actually paid the fee. That fee wasn't voluntary, Fowler said, but the unmanned system was rarely enforced.

"Basically, you were on your honor to deposit the envelope," said Lyle Fowler, the parks and recreation manager for Pinellas County.

A newer "pay and display" system was implemented in August to curb the poor compliance rate.

Boaters who park their trailers at designated lots must find a pay station, pay $5 in cash or credit card, and display the printed receipt on their dashboard.

Compliance is now upward of 90 percent, Fowler said. Since its inception, the fees have raised $651,000 among the county's eight boat ramps that charge the fee, said Sandy Burton, the parks department finance manager.

That money has been collecting in the "Boat Ramp Parking Fees" fund, some of which goes for operating expenses, including the on-site boat wash at Fort De Soto.

County commissioners also are looking to purchase land for a north Pinellas boat ramp with funds generated from the parking fees.

Fowler said more than 1,200 receipts from automated pay stations were collected on Saturday and Sunday on the holiday weekend.

Ron Bennick, 54, of Tampa was using the boat wash station to hose off the 115 horsepower Yamaha motor of his 19-foot Key Largo boat.

"It's always been a nice ramp," he said of Fort De Soto's 800-foot, 33-lane ramp facility. "If the $5 goes to keeping it up, then I have no problem paying it."

Dwayne Martin, a 60-year-old Largo boater, said the launch ramp at Fort De Soto was a premier facility for boaters with easy access and short in and out times.

"Any park system in the country can take a lesson from Pinellas County," he said.