TREASURE ISLAND — City and state officials were scheduled to meet Tuesday in an attempt to head off a threatened lawsuit by beachfront hotel and motel owners who say poor beach maintenance is ruining their business.
"If necessary, we will bring a class-action lawsuit against Treasure Island," Sid Appel, who says he represents "95 percent" of beach property owners, told the commission this month.
He presented a petition signed by 71 business owners and residents living on the Gulf of Mexico who are demanding that the city remove weeds, sandspurs, cacti and other nuisance plants on the beach and eradicate rats that live among a "growing jungle" among the dunes.
"It is obvious the lack of maintenance has compromised their businesses, reduced their revenues and is threatening their very existence. They feel their complaints are falling on deaf ears," Appel said.
Tourism is the "very crux of our economic survival," he said. The city's decision two years ago to save money by not maintaining the beach prompted tourists to visit other destinations "free of sandspurs and weeds and with a view of the water."
He said plant and dune growth has closed off access to the water from many motels, forcing guests to walk a distance to find a weed-free stroll.
"The rear of some motels is so overgrown with sandspurs and weeds, it is disgusting," Appel said.
Volleyball nets, beach chairs and picnic tables once enjoyed by tourists no longer exist because of the city's no-maintenance dune preservation zones, he said.
Appel gave the city four "no compromise" solutions that if not met could trigger legal action:
• Remove nuisance tree, plants and "every weed known to man," preserving only sea oats and palm trees.
• Remove accumulated drifts of sand piling up along the "sand wall" separating beachfront properties from the public beach.
• Rake "every inch" of the beach, including the currently protected 15-foot buffer zones at the foot of existing dunes.
• Limit sand dunes to their current size.
"We have more than enough sand dunes on the beach," Appel said. "For the environmentalists who want sand dunes, you got your dunes. That is all you are getting as far as I am concerned."
He also gave the commission a series of letters from other beach property owners concerned about the state of the city's beach.
Richard Dowling, owner of the Sands of Treasure Island motel, said the city had abandoned areas of the beach to "weeds, rats and litter."
Al Betley, a Treasure Sands condominium resident, said he "had never seen our beautiful beach deteriorate as it did this past year."
A letter from the Sea Chest motel cited a guest who had to go to an area hospital to have sandspurs removed from her feet after walking on one of the city-designated beach pathways.
"I don't live here to look at scruffy-looking sea oats and the wild vegetation that grows amongst them," said beachfront resident Leo Harbaugh.
Jim Murphy, the city's public works director, said Tuesday that he would ask the state Department of Environmental Protection to provide the city with a list of plants the city can remove from dune areas without violating state laws.
Meanwhile, the city has increased beach raking and removal of non-native plants, and is opening access paths through the dunes to the water for hotel guests and beachfront residents.
Since the city's Beach Preservation Committee began planting sea oats and other native plants, the dunes have grown to "taller than adult male," Murphy said.