It's official: Electric scooter rental pilot program is coming to Walton County
DEFUNIAK SPRINGS — Barely two weeks before the last of a series of local moratoriums on the private rental of "micromobility devices" — particularly electric-powered stand-on scooters known as "e-scooters" — was set to expire, Walton County commissioners have approved an ordinance establishing a year-long pilot program for e-scooter rentals.
The county first enacted a 270-day moratorium on e-scooter rentals in December 2019 after enactment of a state law that allows operation of e-scooters in the state under the same terms as bicycles. That law does, however, give local governments the power to regulate operations and safety requirements and to regulate e-scooter rental businesses.
Subsequent to the initial moratorium, the county's attention — like that of local governments across the country — was shifted to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, and the moratorium was extended twice to allow the county to shift its focus to more pressing matters. The current moratorium is set to expire Sept. 30.
That strategy, however, came to a halt when Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis issued an executive order recently that rescinded all local emergency declarations, forcing local governments back into a regular order of business.
Walton commissioners have been frustrated that the state has preempted local governments from dealing with e-scooters on their own. Commissioner Tony Anderson, in particular, has been sharply critical of e-scooters, worrying among other things that mixing them with other vehicular traffic and pedestrians will create safety issues.
"I think our hospitals are going to be filling up," Anderson said at Tuesday's commission meeting, signaling in advance of the commission's final decision on the pilot program that he would cast a "protest vote."
Anderson, who did cast the lone dissenting vote in the commission's 4-1 decision, also decried the state's preemption of full local authority on the issue. "The state is trying to make every county the same, and every county is not the same and never will be," he said.
The ordinance, developed by the county's legal counsel and planning personnel with input from the public, sets the stage for the county to issue a request for proposals from e-scooter vendors interested in participating in a pilot rental program. The program would last for one year, with subsequent options for renewal for additional 12-month periods.
The ordinance requires that a report be prepared for the commission every six months detailing e-scooter rental "ridership, revenues, citations, warnings and any other pertinent information related to continued deployment" of the program.
The ordinance sets strict requirements for e-scooter vending, including that vendors be able to track their e-scooters' locations and that e-scooters be "geo-fenced," meaning that when they travel outside a defined area they are safely rendered inoperable. Those defined areas of travel are not established in the ordinance, but will be part of negotiations with any interested e-scooter vendors.
Additionally, the proposal requires vendors to provide "corrals" or "docks" for the parking of e-scooters, a provision aimed to keep them from simply being left on the streets.
The proposed ordinance also requires vendors to "rebalance" the distribution of their e-scooter stock "throughout the day" to ensure that the devices don't become too concentrated in a particular area and be less available elsewhere.
Also, no one under 18 will be allowed to rent an e-scooter. The ordinance does not apply to privately owned and operated e-scooters, meaning there would be no age limit for operators, nor would there by any limits as to where privately owned e-scooters could operate.
Vendors will face stiff fines for running afoul of the rules, with a $250 assessment per involved device for a first offense, a $500 per-device fine for a second offense (within one year of a first offense), and a $1,000 per-device fine for a third offense within a year.
E-scooter riders also will face fines for improper operation of the devices, with a $20 fine for a first offense, a $40 fine for a second offense, and a potential prohibition from e-scooter rental and a $60 fine, for a third offense.
Commissioners did make one amendment to the ordinance Tuesday, changing the allowable daily hours of operation from the original 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. limits. Under the amended ordinance, e-scooters can operate only between 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.
The next step will be for the county to issue a request for proposals from vendors interested in establishing an e-scooter rental business in the county. In connection with that, interim county counsel Clay Adkinson held out a small bit of hope to e-scooter opponents.
"This is about a pilot process," Adkinson said, "and let's be clear, we may not get anybody (responding to the request for proposals) who complies" with the ordinance.
In addition to the ordinance restrictions, any contract negotiated by the county with an e-scooter rental business could include conditions that are more strict than the ordinance, commissioners learned Tuesday.
Adkinson pointed out that the county's experience with the pilot program, should it attract one or more vendors, could provide the local government with information that could justify even tighter control of e-scooter rentals. For example, Adkinson said local public safety personnel could keep track of accidents and injuries attributable to e-scooters.
"We hope nobody is hurt. But if they are, perhaps that gives us some more leverage" to "manage or limit this for the best interests of our citizens," he said.