TREASURE ISLAND — The profile of Sunset Beach during spring break has taken a 180-degree turn in the past few years, local authorities say, with few arrests for rowdy behavior and drinking, a significant drop in crowds and lots of peace and quiet.
"It's been an extraordinarily slow spring break compared to what we had been seeing," said Treasure Island police Chief Tim Casey. "I can't ever recall it being this slow or calm."
Sunset Beach resident Patrick Fitzgerald agrees.
"We had dinner last night at Caddy's and we were commenting on how quiet it was," he said. "You can enjoy it now. You couldn't before, you could hardly walk between all the people, trash and booze."
This is the third year the city has adhered to specific alcohol restrictions on a section of Sunset Beach, halting the possession and consumption of alcohol between 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. on weekends and holidays from early February through September.
Casey and Fitzgerald both say when the restrictions went into place it was "like a light switch being turned off."
Instead of the 1,000 or so patrons that would jam the roads with their cars and crowd the beach each weekend to bask in the sun, sipping their cocktails and beer, Casey said the crowds have dwindled and violations have dropped. He doesn't know where the crowds have relocated to but says he "hopes they keep going there.
"This past Sunday we had about 250 people on the beach just south of Caddy's," he said. "There were no jail arrests. Three people were given warnings for alcohol violations." The city's policy is a warning first and a citation the second time, Casey said.
"In all my years in law enforcement, I've never seen anything work so fast," he said. "It was nothing like the movie filmed here," Casey said, referring to the recently released R-rated film Spring Breakers, starring James Franco.
Both Casey and Treasure Island City Manager Reid Silverboard, who teamed up to push for the restrictions, think the restrictions are a resounding success.
"The ordinance certainly accomplished its goal," Casey said.
"It has essentially eliminated the vast amount of problems we were having, the rowdy behavior, illegal parking and inconsiderate actions," Silverboard said. He attributes its success to a collaborative effort between the city, police, Sunset Beach residents and Caddy's on the Beach, which paid for extra police officers and a dispatcher along with upping its own security personnel.
Robbie Welborn, a Sunset Beach resident who appeared at City Commission meetings several years ago to push for the restrictions, agrees things have gotten better.
"We are very pleased with the way things are moving," she said. "But I am reserving judgment, waiting for summer to get here."
Welborn contends the public rowdiness, inconsiderate behavior like beachgoers urinating on neighbors' lawns, and parking problems aren't just a spring break issue.
"Kids were coming from all over the area to our beaches," she said. "I definitely wouldn't remove the restrictions. I think we need zero tolerance when it comes to this."
Fitzgerald, a nine-year resident of Sunset Beach, is just glad he's no longer seeing the 12-packs and kegs that had been so commonplace.
"The beach is back to the people now," he said.