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Pass-a-Grille mellows as Sunset Beach parties on: Blame it on the alcohol

Not so long ago, two of Pinellas County's most popular beach communities had much in common.

Both Sunset Beach in Treasure Island and Pass-a-Grille in St. Pete Beach offered picturesque beaches and beautiful sunsets. Tiny vacation cottages and mom-and-pop motels were giving way to beachfront condominiums and expensive, multistory homes.

Both places attracted lively crowds in search of sun and fun during the day and dancing and drinking at night. And with them came complaints of parking jams, noise, trash and public drunkenness.

In recent years, though, the two communities have changed. In Pass-a-Grille, visitors today are more likely to be families and laid-back tourists. In Sunset Beach, a decades-old conflict still festers between rowdy visitors and residents determined to rein them in.

Ground zero in the conflict is Caddy's on the Beach, a bar and restaurant that is a popular draw for throngs of imbibing sun worshipers.

In recent months some residents have mounted a petition drive to put a referendum on the ballot to ban alcohol on the beach. And this month, when the bar's owner — half exasperated and half serious — offered to sell the place for $8.5 million, city commissioners discussed it at some length.

How did one beach neighborhood seem to find a happy medium while the other still struggles with its identity?

A key reason is that Treasure Island still allows alcohol on its public beaches while St. Pete Beach does not.

Caddy's is a strong magnet for young beachgoers. During the past year, it has been the focal point for thousands of fun-seeking people and a major irritant for residents who have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars refitting and rebuilding their homes on the narrow streets of the neighborhood.

Homeowners, of course, prefer quiet, uneventful neighborhoods — not heavy traffic, haphazard parking in front of homes, and drunken revelers who litter private property and verbally harass residents who complain.

Dennis Velasco has lived on Sunset Beach since 1978. He has seen the character of the neighborhood change dramatically.

"The neighborhood's demographics swung over the years from little vacation cottages to serious homes,'' he said. "People are coming in and investing their money to build nice homes they want to live in, not vacation in."

It wasn't long ago that some residents of Pass-a-Grille voiced similar complaints.

Pass-a-Grille, an almost 2-mile-long section of St. Pete Beach, first became a hot spot for fun-seeking in the 1920s, when visitors came by ferry from Tampa to spend the day, or longer, at beachfront cabanas and cottages.

In 1966, St. Pete Beach banned liquor on the beach, but there were still problems.

In the 1970s, city officials tried, without success, to close Shadracks, a bar that some residents called a public nuisance because of loud music, loitering youths and alleged drug use. In 1972, four police agencies responded to a riot on Eighth Avenue that led to 11 arrests and left two officers injured. In 1977, residents complained of "nocturnal activities" among young people on the beach.

In 1979, the city restricted parking along the beach in an attempt to quell the late-night partying there.

In 1991, the Hurricane Restaurant on Gulf Way and Ninth Avenue expanded and opened a disco (later discontinued), leading to continuing complaints from residents about bar patrons wandering through their neighborhood and relieving themselves in their yards.

Then in 1996, a weekend Spin Doctors concert drew more than 8,000 people, shutting down traffic throughout the island for hours.

Over the years, Sunset Beach has had similar problems.

In 1968, according to news reports, Treasure Island police promised residents they would put a stop to noisy, rowdy and profane teenagers who were using Sunset Beach as their "stomping ground."

At the urging of Sunset Beach residents in the mid 1980s, the city tried to ban alcohol on the beach, as St. Pete Beach and other beach cities had. But some residents opposed the idea, and voters approved a referendum legalizing drinking on the beach.

In 1997, the city bought the building that once housed Bedrox, a gay beach bar that sometimes attracted raucous crowds, and turned the beachfront property into a city park.

This year, after a particularly bad spring and summer, some Sunset Beach residents again turned to City Hall for a solution.

Not satisfied with the city's attempt to increase patrols and enforcement, particularly on weekends, residents decided to take matters into their own hands. They began circulating a petition to ask city voters if they want to continue being one of the few beach towns that allows alcohol on the beach.

The city's charter has strict rules governing how referendum questions can be put on the ballot.

Velasco, who initiated the referendum petition drive, said his group has collected fewer than 200 signatures of the 1,209 that are needed by Jan. 5 to put the issue on the March ballot.

With the approach of winter, Velasco said, the beach is much less crowded than it was last summer when thousands of beachgoers crowded the beach near Caddy's.

"I feel the signatures are out there, but it's difficult to find people at home," he said. "It just hasn't moved along like we would like it to move."

Pass-a-Grille mellows as Sunset Beach parties on: Blame it on the alcohol 11/28/09 [Last modified: Friday, November 27, 2009 6:01pm]
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