TREASURE ISLAND — Despite pleas from business owners and threatened legal action, the City Commission tentatively voted Tuesday to continue its ban on drinking alcohol on Sunset Beach for most of the year.
"I fear you have awakened the sleeping giant. This is going legal," said Ka'Tiki owner Fred Stern.
Stern said he and other merchants on Sunset Beach had lost 30 percent or more of their business since the commission instituted the weekend and holiday drinking ban in May.
Residents had a very different view and urged the commission to continue the ban.
"This past six months has probably been the loveliest six months for the past three years," said Robin Welborn. "The majority of the residents love the peace, quiet and serenity of their beach again."
Steve Yost, who lives near Ka'Tiki and Caddy's, said his neighborhood has been "tranquil" since the ban.
And resident Barry Cousins said: "This ordinance is designed to regulate the people who visit our beach, get drunk, misbehave and threaten our safety. Unfortunately, these people cannot be constitutionally excluded, but they can be regulated."
Cousins said that any downturn in business at the beach bars is because of the economic slump, not the snuffing of cocktail consumption on the sand.
For years, weekend drinking and lewd behavior among beachgoers prompted angry complaints and even lawsuits from Sunset Beach residents.
In 1986, the then-sitting commission tried to ban alcohol on all public property, but a voter referendum blocked that effort.
Several years ago, the number of spring breakers visiting Sunset Beach began to rise sharply. Residents complained about heavy traffic, blocked streets and driveways, drunkenness, and visitors urinating in residential yards and having sexual trysts in beach dunes.
In 2009, a proposed 60-day ban on alcohol on all the city's beaches was rejected amid strong opposition from residents in other parts of the city.
The same year, a petition drive started by Sunset Beach residents failed to get enough signatures to put a referendum calling for a complete alcohol ban on the ballot.
The city then tried increasing the weekend police presence on Sunset Beach during spring break and summer, banning beer kegs and tightening parking regulations in Sunset Beach neighborhoods.
At first, many of the problems and the complaints abated, but this year even rowdier crowds, often numbering in the thousands, again flocked to Sunset Beach.
When police Chief Tim Casey said his department could no longer fully control the crowds and recommended the city consider banning alcohol on weekends and some holidays, the commission acted.
That ban, which City Attorney Maura Kiefer insists is not a ban but a "partial regulation of time and places" where drinking can take place, expires Oct. 2.
On Tuesday the commission, in a unanimous vote, tentatively renewed the ban from the first weekend in February through the first weekend in October.
Starting Oct. 3 through January, there will be no restriction on drinking on the beach.
Commissioner Alan Bildz, who represents Sunset Beach, strongly supported renewing the ban and showed little sympathy for businesses in his district.
"I feel bad for the businesses, but I feel bad for stagecoach drivers, too. We have cars and there are no more stagecoaches," Bildz said.
When the alcohol ban begins again the first weekend in February, the hours will be a bit shorter — ending at 4 instead of 8 p.m. — but otherwise will remain unchanged.
Beginning at 8 a.m., beachgoers, including residents, in the affected area are prohibited from consuming alcohol or bringing any open containers of alcohol onto the beach on Saturdays and Sundays, as well as on Memorial Day, the Fourth of July and Labor Day.
The ban begins just south of the Island Inn at about 99th Avenue and extends south on Sunset Beach to the north side of the Sunset Chateau condominiums at about 85th Avenue.
It does not apply to Caddy's private portion of the beach, which extends to the waterline on the Gulf of Mexico.
The only other exception is at Sunset Vista Park and the Beach Pavilion, where beachgoers may consume beer and wine at permitted special events.
The City Commission will take a final vote on the matter Oct. 4.