St. Johns County takes steps toward paid off-beach parking plan

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In the April 2 St. Johns County Commission meeting, the Board of County Commissioners decided to move forward with a Request for Proposals (RFP) process for a paid parking program for off-beach parking lots. Based on the community feedback and public comment, however, county staff has a difficult task ahead with balancing the area’s expectations and limited resources. 

Although the vote passed narrowly in a 3-2 decision, the program will only continue negotiations with Republic Parking System LLC to fine-tune an agreement for the project. Commissioners Jimmy Johns of District 1, Jeb Smith of District 2 and Henry Dean of District 5 voted in favor of continuing negotiations, while Jeremiah Blocker of District 4 and Paul Waldron of District 3 voted against it. The County Commission has yet to proceed with a finalization of the plan. 

The paid parking program would affect approximately 25 locations. Mickler’s Landing Beachfront Park in Ponte Vedra Beach is included in the plan. Although not yet finalized, the proposed rate would be $5 a day or $50 for an annual pass for both off-beach parking and parking at the county’s boat ramps. The system would rely on a digital app that would utilize “smart meters” and pay-by-phone methods. 

The paid parking management program has been an ongoing discussion for the past few years. It hopes to offset some of the challenges involved with directing the county’s limited financial budget toward beach services. Some of these services include maintaining beach access and beach driving lanes, managing trash collection and restrooms and administering habitat conservation and public safety services such as lifeguards and marine rescue. As of fiscal year 2017, the total funding for such services was $1,728,881, according to the county. The revenue collected is from an on-beach driving fee that leaves about $1 million in deficit for beach services. According to Jesse Dunn, the county’s director of the Office of Management and Budget, the current funding approach is “geographically limited,” and the new plan would close the $1 million revenue shortfall for beach services. Currently, this shortfall is levied from the General Fund and the Tourist Development Tax. 

Dunn pointed out that the parking fee program could also help improve the 12 boat ramp facilities in the county. This “Waterway Access Management Program” could provide maintenance for the ramps and amenities, improve parking lot access and capacity, as well as ensure regular channel access dredging, which has recently relied on Hurricane Matthew and Irma funding. Dunn told the Recorder that money accrued from boating passes could be implemented toward expanding the Palm Valley Bridge boat ramp. He was quick to add, however, that all money collected for boating passes will go to only boat ramp facilities, and any money collected from off-beach parking will be allocated only toward beach services. 

In a survey conducted about the program, a majority of residents said the current boat ramps were “insufficient.”

Although many residents stated the boating ramps need improvement, most of the public comment was regarding opposition to the parking fees. 

Most commenters said because they pay property taxes, they should be granted access to the beach. Concerns about Uber and Lyft ridesharing programs were also presented as an impediment from capturing money from any actual tourists, who might not be traveling via their own vehicles or rentals.  

Dunn said that due to an agreement with the Army Corps of Engineers regarding federal funding for beach renourishment, the paid parking program could not allow for differentiating between resident and nonresident rate structures for the plan without possibly losing the money intended to supplement the renourishment projects. 

Blocker and Waldron were in opposition to the overall project. Blocker restated his position on raising the bed tax, and Waldron raised concerns over including boat ramps in the program, saying the program could “curtail” the biggest attraction in the county. 

Smith said he believes it is an “equitable thing to be able to charge for a service you’re benefiting from.” He went on to point out that not everyone goes to the beach or uses a boat, adding that he is, “one of them.”

“Somebody has to pay,” Smith concluded. 

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