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County to debate vacation rentals; Apalach to talk street dining

David Adlerstein
The Apalach Times
The Apalach Times

It’s going to be a busy Thursday evening and Friday morning for elected officials throughout the county, as both city commissions, and the county commission, plan to meet, all remotely.

The first will be Carrabelle, tonight, Thursday, May 7, at 6 p.m. On its agenda are a revised animal ordinance, a proposal by the Community Redevelopment Authority to assist businesses within the CRA, a revised fee schedule to residential and commercial permitting, other measures related to Covid-19 and other matters.

To take part, call 1-415-655-0060 and use the Access Code 545-974-993#.

On Friday, at 9 a.m. the county commission will meet, with two items on their agenda, an appearance by State Representative Jason Shoaf, for discussion and possible action on short-term rentals, and a report by County Coordinator Michael Morón on the opening of beaches and boat ramps, for discussion and possible action.

To take part, call 1-888-585-9008 and when prompted enter 364022831#.

On Friday at 11 a.m., the Apalachicola city commission will meet, with the topic emergency street dining.

At Tuesday’s special meeting, Apalachicola commissioners discussed possibly closing down parking on Avenue D, between Fourth Street and Water Street on one side of the street, with the post office side remaining unaffected. In addition they floated proposals that would expand outdoor seating for diners in the downtown area.

They also passed 4-1, with Commissioner Despina George voting no, a proposal that would relax the ban on short-term rentals at hotels and motels so as to allow these businesses to rent out no more than half of their rooms.

A possible expansion of this policy to beds-and-breakfasts was referred to City Attorney Kristy Banks. George voiced her concern that the entire issue of short-term rentals should be addressed at one time, with a full understanding of the changes and their impact on all variations of such rentals.

In terms of outdoor seating rules, and possible parking space closures, commissioners voiced their support of taking steps that would abide by social distancing and enable these hospitality providers to rebound from the sharp decline in their businesses as a result of the coronavirus stay-at-home orders by Gov. DeSantis.

“I thought it was a good idea to see if we accommodate it in some way,” said George.

She noted that several restaurants, such as The Station, Bite me Deli and Hong Kong Bistro have large pieces of property that allow for outdoor seating.

“What concerns me is if it became a party place instead of additional restaurant seating, with interference on other merchants downtown,” she said. “I would like to see a cutoff time at night.”

She also thought that if spaces were closed off, staffers would be asked to park in underused areas such as the large lot across from Veterans Memorial Plaza and the Orman House.

An additional suggestion, to close down some or all of Commerce Street between Avenue D and F, was also discussed.

“We do have to get creative with our thinking and solutions,” said Commissioner Adriane Elliott, who said she had been exploring options following attendance at a Florida League of Cities webinar.

She said she observed carefully what was being done in Atlanta, Georgia and in Tampa, particularly about an open air market, but said this should probably be addressed at a later meeting.

“Since most of our businesses use their outdoor sidewalk space, we could give them more room,” she said. “We could suspend the permit fee they pay to be able to use it.”

The commissioners asked City Attorney Kristy Banks to research the issues of city liability and insurance coverage, and it is expected she will provide insight on this matter at Friday’s meeting.

“Regarding closure of parking lots and parking space, Tampa and Atlanta are doing it on an optional basis,” Elliott said. She said the city could consider divvying up the spots, and require businesses to cover any additional insurance costs.

She suggested options regarding closure of portions of Commerce Street in sections, and commissioners agreed that fairness to all businesses is a factor in deciding whether to do this particular street.

“It would be entirely temporary,” Elliott said. “This is a way we can try to help them capitalize in a safe way, I think, by following legal precedent. These are extenuating circumstances.

“We would be effectively expanding the sidewalk, and I’m wary of pedestrian traffic so near vehicular traffic,” she said.

Both she and Commissioner Anita Grove noted that any closures would call for the erection of barriers.

“If they (patrons) don’t have somewhere where they can congregate safely, they will congregate and they won’t do it safely. They’ll congregate at Riverfront Park. We’ll have scores of people hanging out in the park,” Elliott said, noting that it would then fall on local law enforcement to then enforce social distancing/

“This is not permanent,” she said. “We can try this out and if it goes badly, we can pull the plug on it instantly and go back to the drawing board.”

Mayor Kevin Begos said a two-week trial period could be tried on Avenue D, “to make something work in a difficult situation.” He said talks with city administrators had led to some consensus.

“We all agreed we would like to see how it works,” he said. “If it works it should be expanded fairly to all restaurants,” he said, noting that at the governor’s allowance of 25 percent of seating, restaurants are “not even able for them to break even.

“Restaurants don’t even want to have a full house. They do want to be able to serve,” Begos said. He said post office officials are opposed to any closure of Avenue D.

Grove said any loosing of street dining rules must include not only a resolution of liability issues, but a commitment to proper social distancing. “They would need to assure the city that they promise to follow CDC guidelines,” she said.

Commissioner Brenda Ash said she was “uncomfortable moving forward without having a detailed written plan.

“We could be getting into something we didn’t expect to get into,” she said.

Police Chief Bobby Varnes said he agreed that “businesses need to get some help. There is going to be a question is it going to be fair for everybody.

“I like the idea of giving it a trial,” he said. “Me personally, during the week, I noticed the tables wasn’t filled up. The Seafood Grill had two tables occupied in front of their place.

“Is it going to get busy to justify blocking off a whole street?” he asked.

To attend the city meeting go online https://us02web.zoom.us/j/86009783841 and put in Meeting ID: 860 0978 3841. Or dial (301) 715 8592