Tourists will have to pay to park at SJC beaches

Approved plan increases visitor parking off beach to $10, on beach to $20

ST. JOHNS COUNTY, Fla. – St. Johns County commissioners have approved a proposal that will increase the price of parking for out-of-town beachgoers to help pay for the increasing costs of lifeguards, patrol officers, toll workers and managing habitat conservation. 

The county is projected to have a deficit of $866,000 for the next fiscal year because of the costs of the beach services, and the County Commission hopes the new parking plan will help close the gap.

"We're trying to fill an $800,000 hole," Commissioner Bill McClure said. 

St. Johns County had more than 6 million visitors in 2015, and 92 percent of them spent some time at the beach, according to commissioners. 

Revenue from the new plan will cover the county's expected $1.7 million cost of beach operations, which include more beach patrol officers, garbage pickup and habitat conservation. The project cost is up from $1.2 million in 2012. 

"Hopefully we can generate the revenue we need based on use fees rather than taxing our citizens," McClure said.

The plan keeps the cost of beach parking the same for residents, who can park free off the beach and pay $6 to park on the beach. Commissioners said residents in the county already pay taxes that help subsidize the cost of beach operations.

But beginning in 2017, out-of-town visitors will have to pay up to $10 for off-beach parking and on-beach parking will increase from $8 to $20. Visitors are currently able to park at the beach for free.

Before the proposal was approved, St. Johns County residents voiced support of the plan during Tuesday evening's County Commission meeting, saying, "Nothing should be free" and "If you're going to use it, pay for it."

"Originally, I was against it. But after understanding the situations that we do have lifeguards that save lives and this is a huge tourist area," resident Shaneen Coffey said. "I do find it fair if they do need the expenses to support their salaries."

There are 32 lifeguard towers along the 42 miles of beach in St. Johns County on weekends, an increase from 20 towers in 2012. Some visitors are against the cost, but other said it's worth it for the beaches to be safer.

Marty Basinger, who lives in Gainesville but visits St. Johns County beaches frequently, said he's not happy about the changes, but understands something had to be done. 

"My first reaction is 'Wow,' because we already pay for hotel and those costs are always going up, (along with) food," Basinger said. "We come here because of the beauty of the area, the beach, and to think that the quality would go down because lack of funding would be negative for us."

Other visitors told News4Jax Wednesday that  an increase in cost would drive them away.

"I would definitely try to look for a beach that's less in price or free," said Dan Reirdon of Pennsylvania.

Another issue is parking spaces, which are hard to come by along the 42 miles of beach. 

"We spend most of the morning looking for parking," said Lorri Reirdon of Pennsylvania. "I don't think I'll pay $20. I think that's ridiculous."

There are more than 150 free parking spaces at the St. Johns County Ocean and Fishing Pier. The Beach Civic Association hosts a market every Wednesday, and vendors said they're concerned that the new parking fees will keep tourists away. 

As part of the approved plan, the county will utilized county-owned property near the beaches and create additional parking lots to accommodate the rising number of visitors. 

To find places where people can park for free and access the beach in St. Johns County, click here. To find Duval County free beach access points, click here.