TREASURE ISLAND — For 30 years or more, the city regularly raked and groomed more than 100 acres of white beach sand.
In the process, sandspur plant growth was largely kept in check.
Not so now.
During budget cutting discussions this year, the City Commission decided to sharply cut back beach raking and would "watch" to see if sandspur growth became excessive.
That is now the case, according to Commissioner Ed Gayton Jr., who says the beach has now become an "unkempt yard."
Gayton wants the commission to reconsider its beach raking policy.
Jim Murphy, the city's public works director, told the commission that since beach raking was cut back in October, the beach is returning to its "natural state" with an increase in native vegetation, including sandspurs.
"Complaints have likened the unraked areas to abandoned yards," Murphy reported.
The city is now raking about 39 acres of beachfront, compared to about 104 acres in the past. The raked areas now include only a 100-foot-wide swath along the edge of the Gulf of Mexico.
This cutback has allowed the city to reduce beach raking time from about 80 hours a month to 24 hours a month, eliminating the need for a part-time worker. It would cost about $15,000 to reinstate the previous level of beach raking, Murphy said.
"We pay $15,000 a year to beautify the causeway and we can't spend $15,000 on our beaches?" Gayton asked.
Murphy said the city could expand beach raking to include beach access points and a 20-foot-wide path to the water at a much lower cost — less than $500 a year.
Raking the city's 50 beach access ways would add only about 9 acres and seven hours to the current beach raking schedule, he said.
Gayton said the city will receive a significant amount of revenue from utility franchise fees in the coming year and could well afford spending the $15,000 needed to reinstate the beach raking program.
According to Gayton, a Sea Chest motel guest's foot became infected after stepping on a sandspur.
"The beach is atrocious. People do not want to walk on it and are not going to come back if we are not cleaning our beach," Gayton said during a recent commission workshop discussion.
"I walked down there and I don't think it's atrocious. It's a natural beach," countered Commissioner Alan Bildz.
"If you don't like raking, we don't have to rake Sunset Beach," Gayton shot back. Bildz represents the Sunset Beach area of the city.
Commissioner Robert Minning said he didn't think the city's tourism industry would be "doomed" if more of the beach is not raked.
"Fifteen grand to me is a lot of money," Minning said, adding that he would prefer that beachfront motel and business owners pay for their own raking.
Commissioner Phil Collins favored Murphy's proposal to add beach access paths to the beach raking program.
In the end, the commission reached no agreement.
Gayton said he would report next month on the rate of sandspur growth. Meanwhile, he plans to ask volunteers to help pull up sandspur plants.
"The No. 1 reason people come to Treasure Island is for our nice clean beaches," he said.