ANNA MARIA — Before the woman with hoop earrings said the things that helped incite all the fuss, she slipped on dark-rimmed reading glasses and told those listening she meant no disrespect.
Then, SueLynn, the one-name mayor in this island town of 1,500, drew in a long breath and began to read.
Her audience on that late August morning was Manatee County's Tourist Development Council, the entity she held responsible for the rising number of visitors to the city of Anna Maria. SueLynn, who is 72, legally discarded her last name 40-some years ago as a sign of independence.
Anna Maria and its beaches are under siege, she told the travel marketers. The swarm of new tourists and the mess they bring have prompted longtime residents to flee.
"People steal their potted plants and porch furniture," she said. "They pee and poop on their lawns."
On holidays, as she depicted it, residents behave as if bracing for a hurricane. They buy groceries early and hunker down "until the streets are clear." Meanwhile, she warned, investors are snatching up deserted homes.
SueLynn described what's happened as "the devastation and raping of our quality of life."
The interlopers have been given a title: "day-trippers." Most live in east Manatee and come to the island for a day. When not pooping or swiping vegetation, residents say, they park their cars too close to homes, unleash rowdy kids, and bring their own food and drink (even grills) to the beach.
Already at the tourist board meeting, Holmes Beach Mayor Carmel Monti had called for a discussion of "what type of visitor we want." SueLynn took a more direct tack. Soon, she cautioned, outsiders might be charged a fee to park in the city. A toll to get on the island was a real possibility.
"We will do whatever we have to do to preserve and protect what's left of our quality of life."
• • •
The backlash was swift. Scathing letters to the editor appeared. People argued that all taxpayers, even those with blue collars, deserve beach access. The words "class warfare" and "elitism" popped up.
Two mainland residents even satirized the popular "AMI" car decals, a status symbol to many, by printing similar stickers with "Day Tripper" inscribed on the bottom. One afternoon they sold 200 in three hours.
Talk of a toll vanished.
SueLynn continued to assert that residents were abandoning the city en masse (the number of homesteads, actually, has increased by two in the last 15 years), but she stopped giving interviews on any "day-tripper" related topics.
At one meeting, City Commissioner Gene Aubry objected to the mere use of the term.
"It's insulting," he said, "and our reputation in this state isn't looking good."
Aubry said he thought the term was code for people with beat-up trucks and loud kids, people who are poor, people who are black or Mexican.
A colleague, Dale Woodland, disagreed on its meaning, but suggested instead that visitors be called "towners."
SueLynn announced that she had settled on "day visitors."
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The air is a blend of crashing waves, whooshing palms and the voice of Jimmy Buffett. Every few hundred feet, flapping banners remind pedestrians that they're having "Another Day in Paradise." Tourists ride rented, fat-tired bicycles equipped with squeaking silicon parrots instead of horns.
Earlier this month, the island's community center put on a mystery performance, apparently about pirates: "Murd-Arr!!!"
A sheriff's spokesman could not remember the last time someone in Anna Maria was actually murdered.
On a recent, breezy morning there, Mike Coleman turned and pointed to empty Pine Avenue.
"This is overcrowded Anna Maria," he said. "Between now and Christmas, you can stand in the middle of any road."
Dark sunglasses and a baseball cap pulled low covered Coleman's round, pale face. Outside a restaurant owned by three of his sons and sitting on a driftwood bench built by another, he spoke with the conviction of a man who seldom loses an argument. He is the mastermind behind the city's "downtown," a pristine stretch of boutiques and restaurants designed in a "Gulf Coast Cracker" style.
Like Coleman, many of Anna Maria's residents are from out of state. Their places, once second homes, turned into retirement havens. But here in this dense population of Type-As, retirement is tricky, the Catch-22 of island living. Typical houses sell for more than $600,000. People who can afford them normally have achieved great past success, and for some, it's not so easy to just putter around on golf carts, sip margaritas and wait for that final sunset.
Coleman, 65, came from Massachusetts, where he managed properties, and built his $519,000 house on Pine in 2005. He started the downtown restoration soon after.
In this place that bludgeons its visitors with quaintness, Coleman struggles to grasp some of his neighbors' grouchy outlooks. He wants tourists to keep coming, and he believes the beaches are no more crowded or troublesome here than elsewhere.
Anna Maria is a wonderful place, he said, so why can't people just enjoy it?
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Commissioner Dale Woodland's Shih Tzu, Lucy, ambled down the chamber's center aisle and circled the dais before plopping down on the beige linoleum floor. No one seemed to notice or care, and thus began Anna Maria's Sept. 24 meeting on the contentious topic of parking.
Gulf Drive runs up the spine of the city's west side. A series of short, mostly residential streets branch out from it toward the water. Some living on those stems have complained vehemently that visitors clog their rights of way.
SueLynn used an overhead projector to present four potential solutions. The first had been requested by those residents: no parking in the rights of way by anyone any time.
The display on the wall included a list of pros and cons. The mayor used a piece of paper to cover the potential solutions she had not yet discussed. Later, she explained that she hadn't given commissioners the material in advance because, in her experience, people tend to read ahead. SueLynn, who came to the island in the 1990s, used to be a consultant in Chicago. She advised companies on how to work more efficiently.
The remaining ideas included everything from permits to pay stations, and with each, the mayor estimated the "potential perception of elitism." The five commissioners committed to nothing, but all acknowledged that they needed to address the parking issue.
Commissioner Nancy Yetter said she didn't care about accusations of elitism. She reminded her colleagues that their duty was to residents, not visitors. That drew a mild cheer from some in the crowd of two dozen.
Aubry, the commissioner who had objected to the term "day-trippers," then offered his plan. After noting that he was "the insane person on the commission," he suggested the city extend the beach 2,000 feet by filling the gulf with sand — and use that new section of beach as a parking lot. An audience member asked him what he had been smoking.
After the meeting, a debate erupted in the hallway.
On one side of the argument were a half-dozen residents who say the new visitors are overwhelming their once-quiet neighborhoods.
On the other was a determined Mike Coleman.
Someone insisted that the day-trippers don't spend money on the island (Coleman, and retailers, say that's not true). He asked his opponents how they could prevent just the undesirables from crossing the bridge.
Lynn Brennan, a dark-haired woman with sunglasses propped on her head, disregarded the question.
Brennan, 65, who owns three properties valued at more than $1 million within a block of the beach, told Coleman she once caught a man using her neighbor's shower. She threatened to call police and he left.
"We're not talking about nice people," said Betty Yanger, 75.
Standing across from her was Mary-Helen Gee, 74, who later said she also caught someone showering on the back porch of her $433,000 home.
Another woman theorized that the parents of these visitors must not have raised them right.
Yanger suggested that a lower caliber of people park in front of her home, valued at $390,000, than those who frequent Coleman's shops. He countered that the city needs more than just those who just come to "fish, play golf and die."
"We're talking about the day people," Yanger said, as Coleman seemed to ignore her.
She stepped toward him to interrupt. This wasn't about the genteel tourists who come for a week or two with their big SUVS and glossy credit cards.
"Read my lips," she said. "We're talking about the day people."
Yanger said she had watched people drink alcohol, curse, bring picnic baskets and ignore their kids.
Brennan said she feared Anna Maria would turn into Panama City. Gee compared what she had seen to "porn."
Coleman looked frustrated, alone, like he was losing this argument. The problem, he told them, is that such talk might make some people think the islanders are, in fact, elitists.
• • •
On a glowing, blue-sky Saturday morning not long ago, Duane Lindsey, 67, stood next to his black Toyota Prius as his wife, Rosanne, also 67, readied the beach bag. A chair hung from his shoulder, and he held in his outstretched arms six towels and a 32-ounce blue jug of ice water. They had bought their T-shirts, water shoes and three of the towels on Anna Maria Island. The Walkman in Rosanne's bag was purchased at a local drugstore.
The Lindseys have driven the 50 miles from their home in Brandon to Palm Avenue on Anna Maria about every other weekend for 10 years during the warm months. They park their chairs under the same Australian pine, unless it's taken, which it seldom is.
"Day-trippers," he said. "That would be us."
A half-hour later, with Duane spread out under the sun like a starfish, a pair of toddlers in bathing suits wobbled by, headed for a tent closer to the water. The girls' family has been coming to the beach from other parts of Manatee since the 1970s.
Barbara Brownell, 65, said she had heard city leaders were "looking to cut down on the riffraff." But had she ever seen such people? "No. Never."
Three generations under that gray, 14-foot tent — including a judge, a retired educator and a pair of Raymond James managers — said they would pay to park if necessary because they realize more people are coming to the island now. In fact, many mainlanders say that. They've just been offended by the rhetoric — and have come to believe some island residents are entirely out of touch.
Critics look at it like this: The complainers own homes near public accesses to a public beach. They happened to buy those homes before the rest of the world caught on, and they expected their treasure to remain a secret, ad infinitum. Once-quiet beach communities all over this state could have attested that the masses and all that comes with them were inevitable. As one person said, it would be like buying a lot at the end of a runway and suing over the noise.
That same day, on the northern tip of the island, Christine Drone, 44, and her husband, Brandon, 28, lounged on a stretch of otherwise deserted beach the length of a football field. He swigged a Coors Light, and she sipped rum mixed with fruit punch. A sand dollar perched on a blue cooler between them. They had moved from Wisconsin to Bradenton in June and had visited the beach nearly every weekend since. Only July 4 was very busy.
The couple said they spend more than $700 a month at island restaurants, bars and shops but still feel unwelcome. On that day, for instance, homeowners on Sycamore Avenue had placed a trash can in front of their shrubs, presumably to keep people like them from parking there.
The Drones are used to that, but for two people who moved more than a thousand miles to bury their toes in the white sands of paradise, the attitude was hard to understand.
"This isn't their ocean," Brandon Drone said, motioning to the emerald expanse. "Everybody should be able to enjoy this view."
Times researcher Caryn Baird and staff writer Drew Harwell contributed to this report, which also included information from the Bradenton Herald. Reach John Woodrow Cox at [email protected] or on twitter @JohnWoodrowCox.