Commissioners revise proposed plan for beach parking fees


The St. Johns County Board of County Commissioners voted 4-0 last week to move forward with a revised plan to charge non-residents increased fees for both on- and off-beach parking, after county staff expressed concerns that the plan commissioners previously approved wouldn’t generate enough revenue.

At the Aug. 16 BCC meeting, commissioners Jimmy Johns, Bill McClure, Jay Morris and Jeb Smith voted in favor of having staff provide further details on a beach parking fee plan that would charge non-residents $20 a day for on-beach parking access, or $175 for annual pass. Non-residents would also pay a $10 daily rate to park in one of the county’s off-beach parking lots, or $100 for an annual off-beach parking pass.

Under this revised plan, St. Johns County residents would continue to pay the current $6 a day fee and $40 annual pass rate for on-beach parking, and nothing for off-beach parking.

The new plan would charge non-residents significantly higher fees than the original plan approved at the commission’s July 26 meeting, when county staff first presented a parking fee proposal to address a growing shortfall in the Beach Services budget. Noting that the county General Fund has been subsidizing Beach Services for several years – and that the current subsidy was expected to be $866,000 – Office of Management and Budget Assistant Director Jesse Dunn presented a proposal at that meeting prepared by outside consultants Public Financial Management.

Under the original proposal, both county residents and non-residents would have paid $5 a day for off-beach parking, with residents able to purchase a $50 annual pass. Doing so, PFM representatives said, would net the county approximately $1.6 million – enough to cover the $866,000 shortfall while also generating additional revenue.

County commissioners balked, however, at charging residents a fee to park in off-beach parking lots, and on a motion by Commissioner Rachael Bennett – who was not present for last week’s meeting – voted 4-1 to move forward with off-beach parking fees for non-residents only, with additional discounts for seniors and veterans.

New proposal

After running the numbers and noting that charging only non-residents $5 a day wouldn’t generate enough revenue to make a significant impact on the Beach Services, the county staff were back before county commissioners with their revised proposal. Prior to approving the revised parking fee plan, several commissioners questioned the significant increases seen in the Beach Services budget over the past several years.

Noting that commissioners have asked departments to hold their budget increases steady in recent years, Commissioner Bill McClure said, “What I’m looking at here is much more than that from a percentage basis. Some of these (increases) were 40 percent, 50 percent, 60 percent. What’s the tangible return?”

County officials and representatives from St. Johns County Fire Rescue noted, however, that the significant increase in the county’s population correlates to increased use of its beaches, requiring the addition of more lifeguards and other staff to maintain the beaches.

“The beach is an expensive asset,” County Administrator Michael Wanchick said. “Whether you’re on the beach or off, there are costs. It just is what it is and costs what it costs and I think we’ve been very responsible.”

McClure also questioned why the county couldn’t do more to increase the amount of room available for on-beach parking, thereby generating additional revenue to offset beach maintenance costs. County staff said they were constrained, however, by environmental laws as well as the need to keep the beaches safe for pedestrians.

“I think you need to keep in mind that first and foremost, this is a beach,” Wanchick said. “It’s not a parking lot. It’s not a driving lane. It’s a beach. The federal, state law statutes treat the beach first. There’s only a few counties in Florida you can drive on the beach anymore.

“If you violate the conservation plan, you could eventually lose entirely the right to drive and park on the beach,” Wanchick continued. “So there’s a balance here. And you can’t lose track of that balance.”

County commissioners voted unanimously to have staff pursue the revised parking fee plan, with details to be presented to the board at a later date. OMB’s Dunn cautioned, however, that even by increasing proposed non-resident parking fees, the new plan is only projected to generate approximately $617,000 – not enough to fully cover the current $866,000 being subsidized by the General Fund. Dunn also questioned whether that figure was attainable, given the difficulty in predicting how many non-residents versus residents will be parking at the beaches on any given day.

“$617,000 is going to be a tough number – I’m not sure that is a conservative number,” he said. “I don’t know if we’re going to get to this $600,000 with this scenario.”