MANATEE -- With their golf-cart way of life in jeopardy, residents of Ellenton's Colony Cove, Terra Siesta and Ridgewood put on their red shirts and packed the Manatee County Commission meeting on Tuesday.
During a public hearing on the golf cart use approval process, residents told commissioners they need access to the 8-foot-wide sidewalks along U.S. 301 North to get to stores and doctor appointments. In many cases, residents have no other means of transportation because they no longer drive an automobile, they said.
But U.S. 301 is itself the roadblock to golf cart use on sidewalks there, said Ron Schulhofer, county public works director.
"This board doesn't have authority to allow golf cart use on U.S. 301," Schulhofer told county commissioners.
The reason? It's a U.S. highway built with federal funds.
Any request for an exception has to be submitted to the Florida Department of Transportation, which would then pass along the request to the federal government. The federal government rarely provides such an exception because of concerns about pedestrian safety.
Deputies began issuing warnings to golf cart drivers in 2013, citing safety concerns.
Residents, who have traditionally used the sidewalks along U.S. 301, asked why there is a golf cart crossing sign on U.S. 301 at Colony Cove, why sidewalks are
8 feet wide and why there are reserved parking spots for carts at area drug stores and Rocky Bluff Branch Library if the area wasn't designed for cart usage.
While not responding to those specific questions, Schulhofer said golf carts have never been authorized to travel along those sidewalks.
Pete Shields of Colony Cove, one of the principal organizers of Tuesday's red-shirt turnout, said his community wants to cooperate in every way it can to be focused on safety, to legalize cart usage on sidewalks and to reduce auto trips on U.S. 301.
"We want to help you any way that we can to get this done," Shields said.
In the end, the county commission voted unanimously to approve a resolution on a procedure for designating public rights of way for operation of golf carts.
The resolution recognizes the county's ability to allow golf cart usage extends only to county rights of way.
Request for golf cart usage on state or U.S. highways would have to be submitted to the county, which would then forward the request to FDOT.
"This is a state and federal issue, not a county issue," County Commissioner Carol Whitmore said, adding she is sympathetic to golf cart use in communities where they have been a tradition.
Whitmore suggested the county could try to work with communities on their cart usage requests, and to work with the Florida Legislature.
Commissioner Vanessa Baugh agreed.
"It scares me because I don't want anyone to get hurt. We just need to make sure this is done in a safe way. You can see that our hands are a little bit tied," Baugh said.
Passage of the golf cart usage ordinance Tuesday gives county staff the procedure it needs to start the process and take requests to FDOT, Schulhofer said.
After he left the public hearing, Shields said he appreciated the county's approval of the resolution, but understood Tuesday's action was no quick fix.
"And now the real work comes in getting it passed by the Florida and the U.S. Departments of Transportation," Shields said.
James A. Jones Jr., Herald reporter, can be contacted at 941-745-7053 or on Twitter @jajones1.