OKEECHOBEE -- State law gives local government the option to allow the use of properly equipped golf carts on some roads with speed limits up to 35 mph. At the May 9 Okeechobee County Commission meeting, local resident Nikki Salmon asked the commissioners to consider this option for some roads in the county.
County administrator Robbie Chartier said under the state statute, golf carts allowed on designated county roads would be required to have safety equipment such as lights, turn signals, seat belts and windshield wipers to be designated as low-speed vehicles. The county can also require a registration sticker. The roads must be marked as designated to allow use of low-speed vehicles. The low-speed vehicles would only be allowed on county roads from sunrise to sunset.
She said while state law allows golf carts to cross state roads, that crossing a state road in Okeechobee County could be problematic for a low-speed vehicle.
She said state law requires the local government to consider the character of the traffic that is on that roadway when considering the option to allow the low-speed vehicles.
While this option is in the state statutes, Okeechobee County has never taken action on it, Mrs. Chartier said.
“Okeechobee is a growing county. We want to encourage people to come here. People come here every day,” said Ms. Salmon.
“Traffic is a problem. 49 states have already adopted the rule. Many counties have already adopted a rule and figured out some way to make this work,” she said.
She said most low-speed vehicles are electric.
“There’s a movement of green going on. Everybody wants to cut back on fuel and costs,” she said.
“When you are driving down the road and you see people riding scooters and golf carts on the sidewalks, most of them have some kind of handicap that prevents them from driving a vehicle,” she explained.
“What they are doing right now is not legal,” she added.
Designating some county roads as open to low-speed vehicle use would be an opportunity for new business in the county, she said, helping those who sell and repair golf carts.
The conversion kits to add the safety features required are relatively inexpensive, Ms. Salmon added.
She said when people with the larger RVs come into town, they don’t have a way to bring an automobile with them. “This would be a very easy solution for them to be mobile.”
“The concern I have is the misuse in an area that is not designed to handle the mixed use,” said Okeechobee County Sheriff Noel Stephen.
“We have a community within our county that is perfectly designed for this,” he said. “Because of the misuse of the mixed use it creates problems.
“I wish we were designed for it but at this point I don’t think it is a healthy thing for us to move into,” said the sheriff.
Commissioner Bryant Culpepper said there is an area where there are already a lot of accidents involving people on golf carts. “We had one recently, a fatality when an elderly gentleman pulled out in front of a car,” he said.
“I would love to be able to see our seniors have that mobility but unfortunately we have a lot of winter guests who aren’t familiar with the roads here and it’s so easy to lose control and accidentally hit one of these golf carts,” he said.
“The safety issue of the occupant of that vehicle is the biggest concern I have. I wish there was a way to accommodate both concerns and make this happen. I would love to see them, I really would, but we need to make sure the residents who ride these are safe, but how can we make them safe to cross 441 in season?” he asked.
Ms. Salmon pointed out that local governments can add their own restrictions that are stricter than state statute.
“Some of these major counties around us, like Palm Beach County, have found a way to work these out,” she said.
“We have a lot of small roads,” she continued. “Almost everything in Okeechobee County can be accessed from a back road.”
“We have some multiple issues with vehicles,” said Commission Chair Terry Burroughs. “Trying to accommodate one compromises the sheriff on another.”
He said he does not want to compromise the sheriff’s ability to enforce the existing laws.
He also questioned the safety of those using a golf cart on a county road.
“Our community is not structured for golf carts to be on these roads,” he said. You’ve got people who do not pay attention. They don’t pay attention to cars and trucks and motorcycles.
“I drive a Harley and you take your life in your hands every time you crank it up.
“If they don’t see me on a Harley, I am concerned they won’t see the golf carts,” he said.
“I don’t see how we can accommodate this in a reasonable and safe manner and also maintain the sheriff’s ability to enforce the laws.”
Commissioner Kelly Owens said the county can be proactive and look toward having more multi-use pathways and getting funding for more multi-use pathways.
She said she is not comfortable to allow golf carts on county roads at this time.
“There are too many variables that I don’t have a comfort level in regard to safety,” she said.
County attorney Laura McCall warned the commissioners the statute starts with the presumption that the use of golf carts is prohibited unless very limited circumstances apply.
Before designating a street, the county must determine the traffic on that street will be safe for golf cart traffic, she added.
Commissioner David Hazellief said there would be a problem if the golf carts try to cross a state highway.
He said only two parks would have access to local businesses from county roads without crossing a state highway.
He suggested the property owners of Silver Palms and the Publix shopping center could work together to create a private road between the Silver Palms gated community and the shopping center and designate parking at the shopping center for golf carts.
“Maybe something like that should be considered,” he said. “The parking lot is private property.
“That’s up to the owner of the store if they think that is beneficial to their business,” he explained. He added that he is not advocating putting golf carts on any roads.
“Two private entities can get together and take a look at that and consult with (planning director) Mr. (Bill) Royce to see if the LDRs (Land Development Regulations) require any type of change,” he said.
“If I was the sheriff, I would think they were opening up a can of worms by doing this,” said the chairman.
“If there is a way we can accommodate, there are areas in Okeechobee Estates and Blue Heron, they’re all 35 mph and under,” said Commissioner Brad Goodbread. “We’re going to have the other side of the coin. We’re going to have some other communities that will be up in arms that they can’t ride their vehicles.”
The commissioners agreed they might revisit the idea in the future.
‘No’ today doesn’t mean ‘no’ forever, said Commissioner Culpepper.
“As we plan our community, the planning director of the county has to consider options for future growth,” said Chairman Burroughs.