Local News

Commission delays golf-cart decision

—Will Highlands County allow Brandon Bennett to drive a golf cart from his Avon Park Lakes home to Lake Olivia?

“You don’t control that,” County Attorney Ross Macbeth insisted. “State law does.”

Four months ago, a Highlands County sheriff’s deputy stopped at Lake Olivia and asked who owned the golf cart. Brandon held up his hand.

“You need to take it home,” the deputy said. He could be issued a $161 ticket, but wasn’t. That was a lot for someone who lives on $710 a month, and who pays $225 a month for the golf cart.

Brandon, who is respectful, kind, considerate and very lonely, said his mother, Peggy Bennett, was in tears. “His life is in your hands.”

Bennett has a rare disease that affects his bones; he cannot walk far and cannot drive a car.

After nearly two hours of discussion, the county commissioners could not find a way to get around state law and Sheriff Susan Benton and County Engineer Ramon Gavarrete’s recommendation that it would be unsafe for the 23-year-old to drive a golf cart on county streets.

However, the commissioners agreed to try again.

“This started as a request for ADA purposes,” Macbeth said, referring to the Americans with Disabilities Act. “The county engineer spearheaded the review, and he was looking for an exception, but there is not one. Florida statues dictate the use of roads. We have looked at other provisions. The only one that has any utility at all, it and has been used in the county before, is where traffic is light and the speed limit is low.”

However, Macbeth said, that is in confined communities. Avon Park Lakes has throughfares.

“Some of the roads are clearly not going to work,” Macbeth said. “The engineer looked further. He asked the sheriff for input. He did speed studies.”

Drivers are going faster than the posted speeds, Macbeth said, and golf carts are not made to withstand collisions with other vehicles.

Benton’s letter to the commissioner said the roads in Avon Parks Lakes are not safe for golf-cart use. If the roads are approved for golf carts, anyone 14 years old or older will be able to drive the streets.

“Is there anything we can do to get this young man around Avon Park Lakes,” Chairman Greg Harris asked. “Do we need to make the entire community golf-cart friendly to do that?”

Yes, Macbeth said, and Chief Deputy Sheriff Mark Schrader agreed, state law does not prohibit riding a mobility scooter on the right of way.

“That’s not a solution,” Commissioner Jim Brooks said. The lawns and gardens of some residents go out to the streets, and they will complain if Brandon and others on golf carts ride across them.

Benton called The Villages, a golf-cart community north of Orlando that has recorded 14 golf-cart fatalities in six years. The community has issued 52 citations in three months.

That’s not a fair comparison, complained Ray Schultz of the Avon Park Lake Association. “The Villages has 90,000 people. We have 2,500. They have 51,385 golf carts. We might have 25, at the most. If this is passed, we might have 75.”

Peggy Bennett said Brandon is 46 inches tall and has no friends. “He is faced with challenges you or I will never understand.”

Brandon has a passion for fishing, Bennett said. “It’s the one thing in life he’s been successful in doing.”

The past four months have been like house arrest, Bennett said, so their decision “will make him or break him.”

Don Thompson talked about another neighbor who drives a golf cart to Walmart. “She’s 83, she’s very independent, and if she did not have a golf cart, she would be in assisted living.”

“It’s just so easy to say ‘no’ sometimes,” Commissioner Don Elwell said. “It’s harder for us to say the majority, if they are a majority, that want to make this a golf-cart community. How can we make that happen?”

About 400 Avon Park Lakes neighbors have signed a petition, and more than a dozen were at Tuesday’s meeting. Avon Park Lakes Community Association has supported designating at least some streets for golf-cart use.

The problem is bigger than one man, Brooks said. “If the community wants to use golf carts, who’s going to pay the costs? It was going to cost about $90,000 just for all the signs. Avon Park Lakes doesn’t have a special tax district to pay that. I see a lot of golf carts at Sebring Walmart and Avon Park Walmart, and even Publix. I don’t know what the answer is, but there has got to be some way to make it happen.”

“We have to look at the safety of the people,” Commissioner Ron Handley agreed. “As soon as we open it up to golf carts, and there’s an accident, who are they going to come back to? They’re come back to the county. They’re going to say, ‘You never should have let this happen.’”

“Morgan and Morgan is going to be calling,” Harris agreed, referring to a personal injury law firm.

“We should follow the sheriff’s direction,” Commissioner Jack Richie said, but he suggested a committee, including the sheriff, to talk more about the problem.

“The sheriff has to be fully involved in this. But it’s going to affect more than person, or one area. With that in mind, I think we need to put something together with a complete picture for the entire county.”

If the county commissioners do allow Brandon and others to drive golf carts, and that solution doesn’t work, can they quickly undo what they did, Harris asked.

“You mean after several kids get hit by a truck?” Macbeth asked. “No, you won’t be able to undo that.”

“What can we do for Brandon right now?” Harris insisted. “Can we make an exception for Brandon?”

“No,” Macbeth said. “You do not have authority.”

Harris asked if the sheriff’s office would simply look the other way. Schrader did not reply.

“What do you want to do?” Macbeth asked.

“I want to get Brandon to the lake,” Harris said.

“People are driving golf carts all over the county,” Macbeth said. “It’s an enforcement issue.”

The commissioners did not say when they would take up the issue again.

Commissioners approved $831,000 for a new EMS main station on George Boulevard. The dual-use building will contain the Highlands County headquarters and a paramedic station.

Elwell said the downtown station will also have to be rebuilt soon. “I’ve spent some time, there, and that one is fairly rough. It needs to be addressed pretty quickly. I would not want to wait too long. We talk about needs versus wants, I would certainly throw this in the needs category.”

Brooks said the 54-year-old Valerie EMS station is also in poor condition. The money to pay for the project was collected and earmarked only for EMS, and cannot be used to balance the budget.

A portion of Manatee Drive Road right of way will be closed until Sebring Parkway Phase III is completed. Additional right of way will be acquired and Manatee Drive will be realigned. The roadway will not be closed and access to other roadways will remain open.

Facilities Management Director David Flowers requested a new courthouse security camera system, and a contract with Sitesecure was approved. The system will be paid for with $30 surcharges on every fine, County Clerk Bob Germaine said. “There are only two cameras working right now. It’s really a mess over there.”

Gov. Rick Scott will be at the National Guard Armory in Avon Park to present special service awards on Aug. 15, County Administrator June Fisher announced.

The commissioners will meet again at 9 a.m. Wednesday to continue budget discussions.

A county employee salary survey was approved. Fisher said the county has not completed a salary survey in 17 years.