TREASURE ISLAND — Expanded beach raking, including easing restrictions on its proximity to beach dunes, is expected to be approved by the City Commission next week.
The action is being taken in response to growing complaints, particularly from hotel and motel owners, that reduced raking in recent years has created runaway growth not just of dunes, but of sandspurs, weeds and rats.
In the past year, in a cost-cutting effort, the city further restricted beach raking to the first 150 feet from the high tide line. The city's beaches are hundreds of feet wider in some places.
"It is ugly, to be perfectly honest with you," resident Barbara Ellis told the commission during last week's workshop discussion. "It is one thing to go natural, it is another to let it get ugly."
The workshop resulted in a clear consensus among commission members to increase the city's beach cleaning efforts.
The first step is expected to be taken at the commission's Jan. 19 meeting to reverse two current policies in effect since 2007 — one that prevented beach raking within 15 feet of the base of any dune, the other that established protected "no rake" zones, particularly between St. Petersburg's Municipal Beach and 119th Avenue.
Those policies were part of an effort to encourage the growth of a natural dune system that would protect upland areas, including beach motels and hotels, from storm surges.
The resulting dune growth has now led to complaints.
The new policy will allow beach raking to within 10 feet of dunes and will eliminate the no rake zones.
Commissioner Ed Gayton Jr. insisted that the city begin to more aggressively rake the beach, warning that many tourists "will no longer come back" if the city does not act.
"I am not a big fan of beach raking, but when we have 70 motel owners asking for this, it's going to happen," said Commissioner Alan Bildz.
Mayor Bob Minning cautioned, however, that the amount of beach raking is limited by the city's state permit. "We cannot willy-nilly violate the conditions of the permit," he said.
Commissioner Phil Collins also suggested the commission should consider whether the city should allow dunes to continue to grow.
City Manager Reid Silverboard said overgrowth on the beach dunes are becoming "sore points" for many motels, but cautioned that although non-native exotic plants can be removed, many native plants are protected.
Meanwhile, sand removal and redistribution along the 1950s-era sandwall behind some beachfront hotels and motels will have to wait for permission from the state, despite the impatience of business owners, tourists and city officials alike.
"If I could do it without putting the city in jeopardy, I would do it. I am not trying to be stubborn about this. What you could do 20 years ago environmentally, you can't do anymore," Silverboard told the commission last week.
Particularly at issue are areas, both out on the beach and along the base of the 3-foot high sandwall, where sand is accumulating and plants are beginning to grow.
City officials do not know if those areas qualify as protected dunes.
Silverboard said he expects to receive guidance from the state Department of Environmental Protection within the next month in defining areas where the city can rake or manually clean and areas that are protected.