The vegetation is growing on the beaches of Treasure Island. Researchers from the Clearwater Marine Aquarium have been told they can no longer use a vehicle to monitor turtle nests. And the concessionaires that work on the beach, many of whom were previously allowed to use a vehicle, now have to carry their gear and clean their areas on foot. It's what the Treasure Island City Manager calls "unintended consequences" of a judge's ruling in a lawsuit. Some of the people affected by the new policies say the city is misinterpreting the ruling.
Last year, three Gulf-front hotel owners sued the city over the public parking of cars on the beach during a large festival called The Greatest Show on Surf. Recently, a Pinellas County judge sided with the hotel owners, ruling that Florida state statute 161.58 only allows vehicle traffic that is necessary for cleanup, repair or public safety on state beaches.
The city is appealing and by doing so the order is stayed until the higher court rules. While that technically means the city can continue with public parking on the beach, to avoid more litigation the city agreed to reduce the number of festivals and to ban all driving on the beach other than that specified in the statute.
At the heart of the debate is the definition of what beach raking actually is. The hotel owners say it's cleanup. The city says it isn't, meaning that the use of vehicle to do it is a violation.
Treasure Island City Manager Reid Silverboard blames the lawyers representing the hotel owners for a badly worded complaint.
"The irony of this thing is that their attorney wrote the injunction. I guess they weren't very elegant in the drafting of that injunction. So now, to go back and tell the judge 'You made a mistake, you need to modify your injunction so they can rake the beach , because they weren't really hurting the vegetation we claimed they we hurting by driving on the beach,' I think it would create certain issues of credibility for them."
Arthur Czyszczon, General Manager of the Page Terrace hotel and spokesman for the plaintiffs, thinks that is nonsense.
"We consider beach raking to be part of Florida statute 161.58, cleanup, repair or public safety, " he says.
Czyszczon thinks the hotel owners are being made a scapegoat for internal problems within the city.
"I think the main reason they're not raking the beach is that their tractor has been broken since February," he says. "Instead of repairing it and continuing to rake, they decide not to rake and blame it on us."
Csyszczon adds that while the city claims the hotel owners' complaint is the reason behind the curtailment of beach raking, the raking continued after the judges ruling until the tractor broke.
Silverboard concedes that the tractor is broken, but says the city could rent one if they were allowed to do it.
That is only partially true. While it is possible the city could rent a tractor, a February request to the city council for either repair of the existing tractor (estimated cost $11,000) or a year-long rental of a tractor - deemed essential for beach raking by Silverboard - was denied by the city council.
Tensions between the two sides further escalated after Silverboard posted a public response to an email from a Treasure Island visitor on the city's website. The writer complained about the condition of the beach. Czyszczon says the response was misleading and mean-spirited.
"They've done everything they can to bully us, sully our names and drive up the cost of litigation. Despite all of their efforts we continue to try to work with them," he says. "This blog posting was just another way of bullying us."
Ending the raking of the beach isn't the only change the city blames on the lawsuit. The Clearwater Marine Aquarium, which has been monitoring turtle nests on the beaches for decades, has been told its vehicles can no longer drive on the beaches of Treasure Island.
The new rules have also made life harder for the vendors and concessionaires who have licenses to service the beach. Musicians who play on the beach now have to carry their own amplifiers, lights, props, sound mixing equipment and instruments on foot from the parking lots. Signed agreements with city vendors, which previously allowed the use of vehicles to maintain, cleanup and service their areas, have been amended by the city to ban their vehicles.
Greg Taylor owns Taylor Beach Services. The company was started by his father in 1955 when he was a lifeguard on Treasure Island. They have had the beach chair and cabana concession continuously on the beach for 60 years. His agreement with the city allowed for the use of a vehicle to move, maintain and repair his equipment . That is, until the day he was escorted off the beach by the police chief and told he was no longer allowed to drive on the beach.
"My challenge currently, with not having a vehicle, is maintenance and cleanup. It's very difficult to clean this mile of beach without a vehicle. If a chair breaks or something needs to be repaired, I have to take it off the beach. What used to be a 10- to 15-minute job is now an hour job."
Taylor says the cleanup and public safety exemptions in the statute could easily be applied to him if the city wanted to.
"I think they've misinterpreted what the intent of the judge's order was," Taylor says. "It was about not allowing the public to park and drive on the beach during events. I think the city has overblown this and extended it to not only include me in the prohibition, but also the raking of the beach."
The sea grass and vegetation grows a little bit more every day. The legal fees continue to mount. And the city, it's vendors, it's hotel owners and it's beach goers all wait for a judge to keep the peace in this oversized sandbox.