Gulf Shores curbs golf cart rental business: ‘It’s a life safety issue’

John “Tater” Harris wanted to rent out his vehicles to visitors during the Hangout Festival and other events, at recreational vehicle parks and campgrounds in Gulf Shores.

After Monday, he is weighing whether to fight City Hall in a courtroom.

Harris’ business, Gulf Coast Rental Co. LLC of Orange Beach, was denied a business license to operate rental vehicles by the Gulf Shores City Council. The vote was unanimous.

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“It’s a life safety issue for me,” Councilman Gary Sinak said. “I can’t support it at this point in time without very strict stipulations on them.”

The council’s decision comes as popular vacation regions along the Gulf Coast grapple with the rise of golf carts, which look like a low speed vehicle (LSV) and are restricted to the same roads as a golf cart in Gulf Shores .

Less than two years ago, authorities in Northwest Florida faced an increase in violations by visitors riding LSVs on bike paths and along busy highways. Children were also spotted driving the vehicles, prompting drivers in one county to put stickers on vehicles listing the requirements needed to operate them.

Said Sinak, “How do you control it? I think it would turn into a nasty problem.”

Harris, in a comment to AL.com after the vote, said his biggest issue is that the city is discriminating against visitors.

“The city believes that tourists are not educated enough to drive low-speed vehicles or golf carts,” he said. “They think only residents should be allowed in.”

According to city ordinance, golf carts and LSVs may not be operated on any public road that is not designated as a “cart road.” The city limits their use to three subdivisions, none of which are near Beach Boulevard or areas frequented by tourists.

Alabama state law defines between golf carts and LSVs, but cities can regulate where they are allowed, and the vehicles are often inspected by local police agencies.

An LSV, for example, looks like a golf cart but is considered “street legal” because they are required to have a 17-digit Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) found on every car. Also, the LSV must have a manufacturer’s declaration of origin to operate and be equipped with windows, seat belts, mirrors, headlights, taillights and turn signals.

Harris said his vehicles are LSVs and are street legal. Gulf Shores authorities referred to them as “golf carts,” which they are not.

Gulf Shores authorities also said they have already seen Harris’ vehicles in areas where vehicles are not allowed. Twice in recent months, one of the vehicles was driven by a renter on West Beach Boulevard — the popular road that runs adjacent to beaches and condominiums and is prohibited for golf carts or low-speed vehicles.

They were also seen operating on a sidewalk parallel to Gulf Shores Parkway.

Gulf Shores Deputy Police Chief Dan Netemeyer said Harris’ golf carts are not in compliance, although Harris said he has obtained all of his approvals through the state Department of Motor Vehicles.

“I’m not putting anyone at risk of not being safe with a golf cart,” Harris said.

He acknowledged that violations have occurred and that his company plans to instruct tenants where strollers are not allowed.

Harris said his company has been operating since 2019 and has 13 carts for rent.

The company is allowed to rent its vehicles in Orange Beach, which is a more popular golf cart rental location than Gulf Shores. Orange Beach has over 1,300 inspected, registered and permitted carts, while Gulf Shores has 250 golf carts that are permitted and inspected in the city. Most of them are confined to the Craft Farms subdivision and adjacent to a golf course.

Orange Beach City Administrator Ken Grimes said the city’s registered carts “maneuver around the city on legal city trails and roads to their desired locations.” He said buggies are not allowed on roads with speed limits above 25mph.

Orange Beach Mayor Tony Kennon said in an interview last week that he doesn’t blame Gulf Shores for restricting their use. He said Orange Beach, despite allowing more golf carts, has a “very regulated” program.

Kennon said there is “no room for them” in some of the area’s hottest tourist spots.

“The golf cameras that we allow are street legal, and they’re only legal on fairways that are 25 mph or less,” Kennon said. “On Canal Street, Beach Boulevard, it’s illegal.”

Golf carts have found a legion of fans among seniors in recent years. In retirement towns around the country, golf carts are becoming increasingly popular due to their ease of use and the preference for using them on errands and short trips instead of taking a car.

Of Orange Beach’s 8,347 residents, 32.2% are age 65 or older. The population of Gulf Shores is 23.6% over the age of 65. The county average is 21.5%, which is higher than the state and national average.

Baldwin County has allowed golf carts — as long as their use is approved by a city government — since a local constitutional amendment was approved by voters in 2016.

Gulf Shores City Administrator Steve Griffin said Orange Beach’s roads and multi-use trails allow for more golf cart use, adding that “ours is very limited.”

“In practice, it’s difficult for our police to enforce this type of business especially with unsuspecting renters and tourists who rent carts and are unfamiliar with the lay of the land,” Griffin said.

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