TREASURE ISLAND — Coastal management expert Robert Young got a close look Friday at this city's wide sandy beaches — and didn't like what he saw.
"It is being too heavily utilized with parking and driving," he said, looking at the numerous tire tracks on the beachfront south of the Thunderbird Beach Resort, where 14 carnivals and festivals are held. "This is really unusual activity for a beach."
Yet as he looked northward, where undulating dunes and sea oats continue to grow, he got excited.
"There are not many places in Florida where dunes are self-establishing," Young said. "This is amazing."
Young, a professor of coastal geology at Western Carolina University and director of the Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines, was paid to examine the island's shoreline by three hoteliers who are suing the city. The hotel owners argue that continued use of the beachfront for festivals and the parking and driving they create is destroying the natural beauty of the area and hurting their businesses.
Young, who says he tries to stay out of the local politics of beach management, says Treasure Island, with its wide beachfront, is in a unique situation. It can promote dune growth, which acts as stabilizers, erosion protection and storm buffers.
Million of dollars in federal, state and county funds have been used over the years for renourishment projects with the main goal of storm protection to save homes and properties, he said.
"Yet here," Young said, pointing to the flat beach area without dunes, "they are preventing the primary benefits from happening. They are defeating the purpose of the public expenditures."
The Thunderbird Beach Resort, Windjammer Resort Motel and the Page Terrace Motel have filed a motion for summary judgment in the lawsuit, which is expected to be heard April 16.
They also have challenged the Department of Environmental Protection's permitting of city beach events. The yearly Rotary Club festival, normally held in March on the beachfront, has been moved to a city park.
City officials contend no proof has been presented of beach damage as a result of festivals.
"The city has not received one iota of evidence of any harm to the beach," said city attorney Maura Kiefer. "The city is always concerned with the conservation and preservation of its beach."
Mayor Robert Minning, former head of the city's beach stewardship committee, said that in 2009 the city received a petition signed by hotel owners — including the three involved in the current lawsuit — wanting the city to rake the entire beach and keep the current dunes from growing.
"If these folks had had their way then, the dunes we now have wouldn't have happened," Minning said.
Hotel owners were surveyed by the city about whether they wanted an extensive dune system and the only one to agree was the Bilmar Hotel, he said.
The city did establish a 10- to 15-foot no-rake zone around existing dunes and is working to establish a corridor that would restrict traffic on the beach to a smaller area, Minning said.
Young believes there is a way to use the beach for recreation purposes and still have a vibrant dune system.
"But not at the level they are using it now," he said.