SAFETY HARBOR — City commissioners declined to establish an ordinance that would have designated specific roads for golf cart travel, meaning that golf carts will maintain their nebulous status in the town for the foreseeable future.
The decision, reached at a commission meeting on June 21, comes amid a visible increase in golf cart usage in Safety Harbor’s residential and commercial areas alike. Despite their popularity, golf carts — under their strict definition — are technically illegal on most public roads, absent county or city ordinances to the contrary.
Florida law stipulates that golf carts may only be operated on roadways specifically designated for them by a county or municipality. “Golf cart friendly” ordinances have been passed in Dunedin and Oldsmar, but not in Safety Harbor — meaning individuals driving golf carts in Safety Harbor risk incurring traffic citations from Pinellas County deputies.
The hypothetical ordinance would have designated legal golf cart roads, as well as regulated age limits, safety features and vehicle registration.
An online poll, conducted between May and June, identified a large majority of residents in favor of allowing golf carts on public streets — 77 percent, or a 10 point increase from a similar poll conducted by the city in 2012.
However, City Manager Matt Spoor cautioned at the meeting that neither the Dunedin nor the Oldsmar ordinances provided a perfect template for Safety Harbor.
“There's no perfect ordinance, solution, or program; they all have their pros and cons,” Spoor said. “There are nightmares of what happens in those cities and what doesn’t.”
Some members of the commission, among them Mayor Joe Ayoub, argued that shifting from state law to city ordinance would only confuse golf cart owners rather than help them.
“It's going to be tough to educate people,” Ayoub said. “(Combined with the Florida statute) it's a patchwork of laws and ordinances. It's confusing.”
State law also prohibits golf carts from driving on roads that exceed 35 mph; consequently, any proposed ordinance in Safety Harbor would necessarily divide the city into three golf-cart friendly “zones”, separated by Enterprise Road and State Road 580.
“If we do the ordinance, and we have the specified zones, and people are out of their zone, they're going the wrong speed (by crossing Enterprise or SR 580),” said commissioner Nancy Besore. “They're going to get ticketed. And that's going to deter some people.”
Spoor also noted that golf carts are legally distinct from “low-speed vehicles.” While golf carts are defined as recreational vehicles that cannot exceed 20 mph, LSVs travel between 20 and 25 mph; LSVs also include features that golf carts typically lack, such as windshields, exterior mirrors, and license plates — and as such must be insured and registered with the state.
The survey provided to Safety Harbor residents did not distinguish between golf carts and LSVs.
According to Spoor, the ordinance would have provided “another option” for golf cart owners reluctant to register their carts as LSVs. Besore, who supported the ordinance, agreed, saying that many golf cart owners choose not to register their vehicles as LSVs even if they fit the criteria, because of the inherent difficulty of the process.
“The golf cart people that I've heard have said it's very cumbersome and it's very expensive,” Besore said. “If they try to make (their golf cart) an LSV, they have to carry it over to Hillsborough to get it registered. They say it's $75 a year to throw it on their homeowners insurance, and it costs $77 a month to do it with the license plate — so in a way, it's an equity issue. People are already in the LSVs if they have the money and are willing to jump through all the hoops, we see them.”
Nevertheless, the commission cast doubt on the idea that the ordinance would spur further golf cart traffic in the downtown area. Commissioner Andy Steingold noted that residents regularly drive their carts regardless of registration or LSV status.
“I don't think by not enacting an ordinance, we're preventing people from utilizing golf carts,” Steingold said. “There are a lot out there. (People) are going to use them anyways, so I don't think it's really going to make a difference.”
Ultimately, the commission decided against implementing a citywide golf cart policy, allowing golf cart and LSV owners to continue the status quo.
“I was all for visiting (the issue), but I just think it's going to be very problematic,” Steingold said. “People aren't going to comply, we’ve got the zoning issue; it's just going to be very problematic. It's easier to defer to state law.”