News & Features

City of Whitefish Floats Proposed Restrictions on Lake Vendors

Councilors identify congestion on Whitefish Lake as potential problem as vendors stack up

The increased presence of floating merchants on Whitefish Lake hasn’t caused any major waves of disturbance, but city councilors, anticipating a congestion problem, are considering whether to regulate or restrict commercial activity on the popular body of water.

“There were apparently a number of vendors who were just out on the lake last year and that was a concern to a number of folks from a congestion standpoint,” Councilor Frank Sweeney said.

The council convened for a recent work session to discuss the budding trend in entrepreneurs peddling their wares on the water, usually in the form of boaters selling everything from sunscreen and sunglasses to ice and soda, as well as renting paddleboards and kayaks.

Because Whitefish Lake lies within city limits, all commercial activity and sales on the lake require a city business license, which the council has considered amending so as to restrict business transactions on the lake. Similarly, the city could restrict its vendor permitting process to exclude sales transactions on the lake.

The concern, according to councilors, is that if commercial activity continues unregulated on the lake, it will become a free-for-all marketplace, with dozens of boats bobbing around City Beach and other popular destinations on the lake soliciting their products and causing congestion.

Still, city officials agree that it’s not time to pull the trigger on added restrictions just yet.

“We concluded that we are going to have to see what happens this summer. Last summer was kind of a summer of first impressions,” Sweeney said. “It’s a little bit of a, ‘we think we have a problem here but we’re not real sure,’ so we’ll take it up again in the fall.”

Councilors said it’s not the city’s intent to quash the spirit of free enterprise, but merely to get a handle on a situation that, if left unabated, could get out of control.

Ed Docter, owner of Tamarack Lake Shop in Whitefish, rents all manner of recreational water gear, both from his shop on Wisconsin Avenue and from his 28-foot pontoon boat, which is outfitted with paddleboards, kayaks, tubes, wakeboards, water skis, swim wear, life vests, and even marina items like bumpers and ladders.

“It’s pretty unlimited,” Docter said of his aquatic inventory.

But Docter didn’t notice any problems on the lake last summer, and doesn’t anticipate any this summer.

He operates his business with a general business license, required by the city to do any business within the city. He acknowledged that restricting those licenses in a way that would require all retail businesses and sales transactions to be conducted from the licensee’s land-based business location, not on Whitefish Lake, is the most likely amendment that city officials would entertain.

But Docter hopes such a restriction is not imposed, adding that he and other vendors have conducted their businesses responsibly.

“There is some concern about having too many businesses out there. They don’t want to have 20 or 30 boats circling the beach,” Docter said. “But right now there’s just a few of us, and I don’t think it’s going to be an issue.”

Councilors also identified loopholes in a potential restriction to the city business license, particularly as technology allows vendors to accept money from customers over the Internet, simply by logging on with a smart phone – and thereby bypassing a statute designed to regulate traditional, hand-to-hand business exchanges.

Still, city officials will be paying attention this summer to inform a decision later in the fall.

“My takeaway is that if it doesn’t get out of hand, we’re fine,” Sweeney said. “If it does get out of hand and we have 20 or 30 boats hanging out and circling around City Beach or outside the Lodge (on Whitefish Lake) trying to vend, I don’t think that’s what we really want on our lake.”

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