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A battle is brewing to ban alcohol on Sunset Beach

Emily Heil of Tampa sits recently on Sunset Beach, one of the last beaches allowing alcohol, as cups are collected.

KATHLEEN FLYNN | Times

Emily Heil of Tampa sits recently on Sunset Beach, one of the last beaches allowing alcohol, as cups are collected.

TREASURE ISLAND — Sunset Beach is a tiny finger on the end of Treasure Island, a block wide and a mile long. Sea turtles, terns, neon iguanas and parrots live among the people. Sea oats are thick. Homes are quirky. Shoes are uncommon.

It's one of the last places in Pinellas County where you can drink on the beach. Every weekend, people migrate, clogging the streets to bake under the sun and imbibe. Sometimes, they drink too much. Bushes become bathrooms. Cans become missiles. Voices become air raid sirens.

The residents have always been a puckish bunch. They band together when developers want high-rises. They clean when litter gets bad. Now, some want to restrict beach boozing, hoping for some peace.

But can you really take away people's alcohol?

Can you ever kill the party beach?

• • •

1941 — A Sunset Beach homeowner says noises from a nearby nightclub "make it impossible for those of us who sought quiet and rest there even to sleep in the early morning hours."

1967 — Surfers anger residents by blocking traffic, trespassing, racing and changing clothes between parked cars.

1968 — Police release emergency patrols on the heels of complaints of profanity, screaming tires and broken bottles. One police officer calls the springtime complaints an "annual occasion."

• • •

The vacationers were there first.

Sunset Beach sprouted in the 1930s, a cluster of rental cottages along narrow footpaths. The first permanent residents came in 1937, a couple who remodeled the beach shanties.

When a school opened in the 1950s, families came, moving into homes cramped against curbs on 30-foot lots. The beach's enduring geometrical dilemma was born — large numbers trying to fit into a small space.

"This is almost like the perfect storm," said Dennis Velasco, 72, a semiretired insurance man who moved to the beach 31 years ago.

Back then, the beach had a reputation for drug dealers and roustabouts. Velasco built his 3 1/2-story house anyway, eye on investment.

The problems aren't new — just never as severe, said Velasco, who is helping lead the charge to ban alcohol at the beach. "Banning alcohol is the only way to really solve the problem and nip it in the bud immediately," he said. "It dries up the people coming to the beach and the mob scenes and the parking."

In the proposal, drinking would be banned from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. when crowds are the biggest, leaving freedom for people to have cocktails at sunset. The ban would be limited to Sunset Beach, not all of Treasure Island.

But the party is why many came in the first place.

Bob Driscoll, a 68-year-old electrician, spent his teen years hanging out on Sunset Beach. Now the nine-year resident is vice president of the civic association and plays Santa in the annual holiday house crawl.

He favors the Ka'Tiki, the only bar there besides Caddy's on the Beach. That's too rowdy for his taste. But he gets it.

"Kids are kids," said Driscoll. "I did the same things. You know what you're getting into when you move out here."

Banning brew will be an uphill battle in a town that likes to drink. In the 1980s, the City Commission approved a ban on alcohol. But residents were so outraged they did exactly what Velasco and others are doing now — got petition signatures to get the issue on the ballot.

Then, they voted to get their booze back.

• • •

1983 — Residents say two bars, Driftwood Inn and Penguin Restaurant, attract foul language, fights, litter, pot smoking and public urination. Police step up enforcement.

1987 -— City officials want to impose a curfew on a parking lot where teens wrestle and drink.

1990 — Complaints about loud live music at Beach Nutts Bar and Grill spur commissioners to draft a noise ordinance.

1996 — Over Memorial Day weekend, police issue 311 parking tickets, most next to Bedrox bar on Sunset Beach.

2004 — Ka'Tiki bar attracts 24 noise complaints for a Thursday night live folk music show that regularly draws 100 people.

• • •

The elephant in the room is a two-story haven of umbrellas, cocktails and tanned bodies.

Caddy's on the Beach.

The lawn chairs are free. The music is loud. You can bring your own beer. You can buy a grouper sandwich and a daiquiri and walk down to the sand. Police estimated that nearly 3,000 people packed the beach there last July 4. Average days are much calmer, but bustling.

Luke Witkowski, 27, a substitute teacher from Seminole, is there almost every weekend.

"I think this is kind of a release place," he said. "Whatever. What the heck. Drink, have fun, and let the behavior guide itself."

That behavior is typically mellow, Caddy's fans say — fire starters are in the minority.

"One bad apple spoils the rest," said Ron Simpson, a 28-year-old music producer sipping a can of Busch Light. "The view is beautiful, the women are beautiful. It's just a good time."

Caddy's owner Tony Amico understands gripes. On busy days, he employs at least five security guards and four off-duty police officers. He has added more portable bathrooms. Tired of fighting and sinking money into lawyers, he even proposed the city buy the bar and take it off his hands.

He doesn't know what else to do.

"I think that the residents of Sunset Beach aren't happy with having a commercial business there anymore," said Amico. "They've gotten to the point where they don't want a bar or restaurant in their neighborhood."

But Amico owns about 700 feet of beach around his bar. It raises a question about a ban's effectiveness: Couldn't people drink on his property no matter what?

"That's a very good argument," he said.

The beach's problems may be difficult to squelch in one swoop.

The Treasure Island Police Department is hiring a community officer for Sunset Beach. And current patrols combined with Amico's security are adequate, said police Chief Tim Casey.

"The issues that Sunset Beach deals with essentially all come down to an awful lot of people in a small space on the weekend," he said. "That really sums it up."

Amico doesn't live on the island, but believes it will always be a lure.

Does he think a ban could succeed?

"Sure," he said. "They banned it on every other beach."

• • •

July 2009 — Residents pack City Hall to complain about public drunkenness and vulgarity.

August 2009 — The City Commission agrees unanimously to ban beer kegs on the beach.

October 2009 — Residents go door to door, petition in hand.

Stephanie Hayes can be reached at shayes@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8857.

A battle is brewing to ban alcohol on Sunset Beach 10/31/09 [Last modified: Saturday, October 31, 2009 10:25pm]
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