TREASURE ISLAND — On one side of this strip of sand, a row of boats bobs in the gentle waves. On the other, a row of beachfront mansions towers over dunes and sea oats.
It seems idyllic, but these are the front lines in a war between boaters and residents on Sunset Beach.
Homeowners say the boaters who pull up to the back of their houses are loud, drunk and a danger to swimmers. Boaters reply that the residents are over-reacting to a problem that police could handle.
"We've had to vacate the beach. It's just not safe anymore," said Ray Green, 62, a longtime Sunset Beach resident, as he sat on his neighbor's shaded patio overlooking the Gulf of Mexico. "This is a whole new dimension for our lives here on the beach."
Now the Treasure Island City Commission is trying to make peace. This month, it considered a proposal to create a swim zone the length of Sunset Beach to keep boats 300 feet offshore. But the boating side launched a defense at the meeting with an hour of testimony.
Caught in the middle is Caddy's on the Waterfront, a beach bar that draws customers in boats, but also counts itself a member of the Sunset Beach community. Owner Tony Amico thought the proposal to ban boats would hurt his business, so he pleaded with the commission not to pass the swim zone. It put him in a precarious position with his neighbors.
"We should all live in a perfect world and get along, but that's not what's going to happen," Amico said. "The people with the political clout will be heard."
Legally, the beach belongs to everyone, not just the homeowners on Sunset Beach. When cities accept federal money for beach renourishment, as Treasure Island has, property owners relinquish their rights to the beach, which becomes public land.
But Amico and boaters say that's not reflected in the political fight, where residents who vote for the commission have more sway than the boaters who come from all over.
They also feel shunned. Last year, the county banned pets and alcohol from Shell Key, a favorite boaters' hangout. Many moved to this spot. They say there are fewer and fewer places where they're welcome.
Still, the commission said it sympathizes with the boaters. Commissioner Alan Bildz, who represents Sunset Beach, said it's likely to make a compromise that will allow boaters to drop off passengers near Caddy's before anchoring farther out. He says Caddy's customers aren't the problem — it's the folks who get loaded on their boats and have nowhere to relieve themselves.
"We're not saying we don't want boats anywhere," Bildz said, "just on Sunset Beach where it's basically residential."
Ron White says he bought a place in Sunset Beach because he wanted to pull his boat to shore, and the police should handle the troublemakers. He says his neighbors are exaggerating the problem — he's never seen topless women, noticed people using the beach as a bathroom or heard obscenities, as his neighbors have said.
"There's only a handful of people making loud noises, and I think those are the ones that should be addressed, not everyone," White said. "It's a few bad apples."
On a recent Saturday, the scene was mostly tranquil, with about a dozen boats anchored near shore. Boater Marc Whitt, 33, received a ticket for noise, although he said the deputy mistook him for another boater.
Fewer boats have been showing up because they heard the residents are encouraging enforcement, he said. Whitt thinks homeowners should lighten up.
"It's the beach. It's Florida. It's sand. It's people hanging out," Whitt said. "We're being harassed for having fun."
A sunbathing German couple said they're enjoying Sunset Beach less since the boating crowd has grown.
"The place has so completely been different because of these people," said Gerda Kolbecher, 55, who's visited the beach twice a year with her husband since 1989. "You can't really swim when there's a row of boats."
Karen Hrubar, 38, was boating with her family, including her 2-year-old daughter, Savannah. She empathizes with the residents because she lives on the water in South Pasadena. Hrubar said she'd be happy with a dropoff spot so she could still access Caddy's.
"I can definitely understand their concern," she said. "They pay a lot of money to live here."
Stephanie Garry can be reached at (727) 892 2374 or [email protected]