ST. PETE BEACH — Drinking a beer, a cocktail or a glass of wine may soon be legal on this city's beaches, but only for hotel guests in and around their hotel's beachfront cabanas.
If the City Commission approves the new rule, residents and regular beachgoers would still be barred from drinking alcohol anywhere on the beach — a restriction that angers some residents.
Current city rules bar consuming or possessing alcoholic beverages on all public streets, sidewalks, parks and all private and public sand beach areas on the Gulf of Mexico.
"If you are going to allow hotel guests to drink on the beach, why not allow residents who pay taxes and live here all the time to take a cocktail onto the beach at sunset? I see no reason to give preferential treatment to hotel guests," said St. Pete Beach resident Susan Perodeau, who described the proposal as "ridiculous.''
Bill Pyle, president of the Silver Sands Condominium Master Association, called the proposal inconsistent with the city's family-friendly character and "inherently discriminatory."
Commissioners countered, however, that the proposed change has been debated for two years and most residents do not want everyone to be able to drink alcoholic beverages on the beach.
"I'm glad we are moving forward on this," said Commissioner Melinda Pletcher. "It's a smart thing for the city to support the (hotel) industry, for people who come down here on vacation and able to be served in the cabanas."
She stressed, however, that it was equally important that the city put rules in place to prevent abuses.
"There needs to be consequences and they need to be pretty severe," said Commissioner Rick Falkenstein, who also called for signage that would let both cabana users and law enforcement know the boundaries of the permitted alcohol area.
Tim Bogott, CEO for the TradeWinds Islands Resorts, stressed it would "not be in the best interest" of hoteliers to allow guests to get out of hand on the beach.
The TradeWinds has 1,500 feet of beach frontage and more than 500 cabanas.
Earlier this month, the commission delayed voting as it debated how to both loosen its beach drinking rules and put in place consequences if problems arise.
Since that meeting, city staff has been rewriting the ordinance to strengthen restrictions and put in place penalties for hotels whose guests abuse the new privilege.
The proposed ordinance, which will require two votes to go into effect, is now scheduled for its first commission vote on Aug. 8.
As written, the ordinance restricts beach drinking by hotel guests to so-called "designated zones" where their hotels rent cabanas.
The cabanas cannot be any closer to the gulf than 50 feet from the high tide water line, or any closer than 75 feet from the property line of existing residential property.
Taking their drinks elsewhere on the beach would be prohibited. Violators would be subjected to fines and possible arrest, just as beach drinking by residents and regular beachgoers is currently enforced.
The commission agreed that cabana users must be registered guests of the hotel and must wear official wristbands distributed by the hotel.
Only people wearing such wrist bands could be served alcoholic beverages at the cabanas.
The regulations included in the ordinance are the result of months of meetings between city staff and hoteliers, cabana providers and the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office.
Each beachfront hotel would be required to seek a permit before being allowed to serve alcohol on the beach between 10 a.m. and 10 p.m. daily.