TREASURE ISLAND — Ruling in favor of three beachfront hotel owners, a judge has ordered the city to prohibit vehicles from driving and parking on its beaches.
Circuit Judge Pamela Campbell signed a summary judgment order prohibiting vehicular traffic and parking on Treasure Island's beachfront except for cleanup, repair and public safety reasons.
Last week's ruling came less than two weeks before one of the city's major annual beach events, Sanding Ovations — a four-day event beginning Wednesday where sand sculptors across the country and world gather to create sculptures using sand, water and their imaginations.
The event — for a city that bills itself as the sand sculpture capital of Florida — draws thousands to Treasure Island and, in the past, participants and event attendees alike have parked on the beach.
In light of the judge's ruling, the city is making preparations to move parking offsite this year.
"The event is still on, but I'm not sure in what shape or form," Mayor Robert Minning said Monday.
City Manager Reid Silverboard referred questions to City Attorney Maura Kiefer, who did not respond to a request for comment.
The City Commission held an executive session last week and a second one this week to discuss its options in the case, which could include appealing the ruling.
Meanwhile, the owners of the Thunderbird Hotel, the Page Terrace Motel and the Windjammer Resort are celebrating their victory.
"Our beach is the main economic driver of the island and it needs to be protected," said Thunderbird general manager David King said. "We are very happy with the judge's ruling and look forward to trying to work with the city to continue to have events that protect the beach and not destroy it."
Attorney Courtney Fernald, with Englander Fischer, which represented the hotel owners, called the ruling "a complete victory for my clients."
The city had made a last-minute offer to settle the suit last month by agreeing to some parking restrictions for future beach festivals and other events.
But hotel owners decided to await their fate in court, saying they weren't against events on the beach but didn't want the vehicle driving and parking that accompanied them.
In the ruling, the judge rejected the city's definition of what beach area is covered under state law, which rules out parking and driving vehicles on the beachfront.
"Cars belong on the road and not the beach," Windjammer Hotel manager Kevin McInerney said. "We are happy the judge enforced the law and are very proud we helped protect our beautiful beach and the endangered turtles and wildlife that call Treasure Island beach home."
The city now holds about three city-sponsored events a year on its beaches, including Sanding Ovations, Bands on the Sand and, this year, a 60th anniversary celebration for the city.
Because of the lawsuit, the city had already limited parking and driving for other beach events, including moving an annual Rotary Club carnival to another site.