On a sunny Saturday afternoon in Fairhope, downtown shoppers can see any number of moderate-to-high-priced vehicles parked up and down Fairhope Avenue and on surrounding streets. A drive down De La Mare or Church Street might give the shopper a view of a different kind of vehicle: the street-legal golf cart.
The city doesn’t regulate the use of golf carts in downtown Fairhope. As long as the motorized cart is street legal, shoppers can ride them from shop to shop. While drivers can’t use the vehicles on sidewalks, they are allowed to park them in spots reserved for regular cars.
“As long as they are street legal and they drive it just like they would a car, they can bring it downtown,” Fairhope City Council President Jack Burrell said. “We have no city ordinances against it.”
At a previous meeting during a discussion about low-impact development processes in creating parking spaces for compact cars in certain areas of the city, Burrell asked Planning Director Jonathan Smith about the possibility of adding spaces for street-legal golf carts downtown. Smith said the city is about to begin a study looking at compact cars and street-legal golf carts, so that’s a possibility.
“I have had a lot of people request street-legal golf cart parking downtown,” Burrell said. “I know it is becoming a big thing people do down here.”
The city could institute a set of regulations regarding golf cart use on its municipal pier at its next regular meeting in November. The new rules would affect just one golf cart driver, Shux restaurant owner and municipal pier marina lessee Rick Gambino.
Gambino controls the lease previously held by Bob Pope, the former owner of the Yardarm Restaurant. The lease, which includes the restaurant and the pier marina, was assigned to Gambino, who assumed the remaining time of the lease through February 2022. The lease has a 15-year renewal option at that time.
According to the lease provided by the city, 25 percent of revenue from the marina is supposed to be paid to the city. The lease also states rules against driving a motor vehicle or riding a bicycle on the pier for any purpose other than “supplies, maintenance and building purposes.”
Since assuming control of the lease, Gambino has used a street-legal golf cart to shuttle people from the pier parking lot and other locations in town to the restaurant, which is located a few hundred feet down. Gambino contends he pays an employee $12 an hour to shuttle the elderly and disabled to and from the restaurant.
A new set of regulations — which could see a vote by the City Council at its Nov. 9 meeting — specify whoever holds the Fairhope Municipal Pier Restaurant and Marina lease must only use a motorized vehicle for the disabled at a speed limit no faster than 5 miles per hour. The leaseholder must not park the vehicle on the pier except to pick up or drop off passengers, and the vehicle cannot be driven beyond the entrance to the marina.
Breaking the new ordinance will subject the leaseholder to a $250 fine the first time, followed by a $500 fine the second and a third offense will be followed by suspension of the motor vehicle rights for one year. Councilman Kevin Boone has suggested amending the ordinance to give it more teeth, focusing on both the leaseholder and driver of the vehicle as well as adding the threat of license suspension after the first offense.
Gambino said the golf cart has been used at the restaurant for three months without incident. He speculated the city should consider itself lucky its most pressing issue of the last few weeks is the use of a golf cart on the pier.
“All we are doing is trying to allow the cart to drive on the pier, slower than the walkers,” Gambino said. “This is about common sense and helping people. I don’t make a cent using the shuttle to bring handicapped people to the restaurant. Why is that so bad?”
His detractors say the cart is dangerous and ruins the experience they previously enjoyed at the pier. Wanda Bell, a resident of the fruit and nut district, said allowing the restaurant to use a shuttle on the pier is against pier rules and endangers the elderly and children who use the pier as a place to exercise and watch sunsets.
“I have lived here 20 years and that’s the place we have always gone to let our grandchildren walk or take a stroll down the pier to watch the fishermen,” she said. “Now that has changed. Now there’s a vehicle running up and down the pier, even though the sign clearly says ‘no motorized vehicles.’”
According to Gambino, he believes there is a vendetta against him by some in the city who want to see the business fail. Other restaurants in town, he said, have handicap access and the golf cart gives his customers the same access they would have elsewhere.
“The bottom line is, I lose money to shuttle two or three people a night to the restaurant,” Gambino said. “I’m trying to do it because I think it is a nice service.”