TREASURE ISLAND — The powdery white sand is unquestionably this island community’s most valuable asset.
That’s why an especially wide stretch of beach behind the Thunderbird Hotel and others should not be used as a stage for carnivals, concerts or event parking, says Robert Young, a coastal geologist from Western Carolina University visiting Treasure Island this weekend.
Just a few yards north, he says, there are signs of health: grassy humps and sand dunes that have built up. But the stretch behind the Thunderbird remains void of vegetation because of cars, music stages and even a Ferris wheel that was set up here during a dozen different annual events.
Young’s trip came at the request of a group of beachfront hoteliers who have complained that the festivities are bad for their business and the environment.
He did not speak about the hotel owners’ lawsuit that claims the city is violating state environmental laws by allowing vehicles and event equipment on the sand.
Regardless of whether it runs afoul of state regulations, though, Young said these kinds of intense activities are bad for the beach’s ecosystem and possibly the long-term economy.
“The beaches are your gold,” Young said. “The business engine for so much of the state is this beach and protecting this beach.”
The events are permitted by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, which has sought to dismiss the hoteliers’ demand for an administrative hearing on the matter.
City Attorney Maura Kiefer says the claim that the events and parking violate state law is baseless, as are many of the lawsuit’s accusations of environmental degradation.
“At the end of the day the evidence will show that the City’s beach is flourishing, healthy, protected and preserved,” Kiefer wrote in an email, noting the city’s active Beach Stewardship Committee.
Attorneys for the hoteliers have pointed to a state law passed in the late 1980s that prohibits driving on Florida beaches except for maintenance, unless local governments already had allowed it.
Pinellas County makes no such allowance, and Treasure Island amended its beach driving ordinance in 2003, which means it runs afoul of the state law, hoteliers have said.
The case is scheduled to be heard in circuit court in April.
Should DEP fail to act, the hoteliers plan to sue the agency.
At first, their grievance with the city was focused more on economics than the environment.
The dispute started heating up after a beach carnival last spring to benefit the Rotary Club called “The Greatest Show on Surf,” which included a music stage, Ferris wheel and cars parked on the sand after nearby lots filled up.
Guests at the neighboring Thunderbird, Page Terrace and Windjammer hotels didn’t appreciate the spectacle, and the owners told city commissioners events like this held at peak season cost them reservations.
Many hoteliers and merchants elsewhere on the beach have said the activities are good for business.
Regardless of whether DEP permits the events, Young says they’re not in the community’s broader interest of protecting the beach.
A 1995 Google Earth image shows much of this broad beach devoid of vegetation; today, grassy dunes have reappeared in many spots except where the events are held.
Sand dunes offer an important natural barrier to protect coastal areas from storm surge, Young said.
Beach festivals don’t necessarily tell the whole story, said Ping Wang, a coastal geologist at the University of South Florida.
For one thing, though he hasn’t done a formal study on it, the practice of raking this popular part of the beach may clear out both garbage and fledgling vegetation, Wang said.
For this part of the Gulf of Mexico as a whole, lower winds and a humid climate result in less sand being blown around to form tall dunes.
“The main factor, the reason there are no dunes there is not because they have these events,” he said.
Though dunes do act as storm surge barriers, the relatively small ones that form on the Treasure Island beach don’t offer much protection, he said.