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Shell Key hosts a tamer party

On the July 4 weekend, 21 ordinance violations and about 100 warnings were given to visitors, mostly for breaching the rules on pets.

CHRIS ZUPPA | Times

On the July 4 weekend, 21 ordinance violations and about 100 warnings were given to visitors, mostly for breaching the rules on pets.

The county's new ordinance that bans dogs and booze from Shell Key Nature Preserve seems to have had the desired effect.

The Fourth of July weekend was noticeably devoid of partygoers, officials said, leaving families and wildlife to reap the benefits.

"Everything went real smooth, no fireworks were set off, and the birds are still loving life out there," said Pam Leasure, environmental lands manager.

On Friday and Saturday, about 300 people in 60 or so boats showed up at the island, compared to nearly 2,000 people in hundreds of boats in years past.

In December the county passed an amended management plan to protect the island, an important habitat for rare shore nesting birds.

The new rules ban alcohol and pets from the entire preserve, including the surrounding waterways, and were aimed at minimizing what the county staff and the Sheriff's Office said was becoming an out-of-control party crowd.

This July 4 weekend, 21 ordinance violations and about a hundred warnings were given in the preserve, compared to just 17 ordinance violations for the entire month of July 2007.

Most of the violations were for pets, said Sgt. Glen Wilson of the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office environmental lands unit.

Both Wilson and Leasure said the number of nesting birds was noticeably larger than in years past.

With the high price of gas, it's hard to specifically point to the alcohol and pet ban for the low number of boaters in the preserve this holiday, but for Captain Alva Sholty, who runs the Shell Key Shuttle, the effects are clear.

"Obviously it's so much nicer for families, and at least one species of bird, the black skimmer, has a nesting colony on the northeast tip (of the island), where the parties used to be," said Sholty, who has been ferrying visitors to the island for 20 years.

Though the new rules have made for a family-friendly environment, some boaters have taken umbrage.

The new plan took fire from recreational boaters at a number of public hearings last year and has led to the formation of at least one boaters rights group, the Recreational Boaters of Florida, which is looking into questioning the legality of the new plan.

"There's almost no place to go now where you put the bow of your boat on the beach, have your dog with you and have a legal alcohol drink," said organizer Dick Granger.

Boaters who want to party must now go to a number of smaller islands near the mouth of John's Pass, Granger said.

Despite the continued clamoring, the county staff is more than satisfied with the outcome thus far, maintaining that the preserve is primarily for shorebird nesting.

The new rules also further limit the areas accessible to visitors and put more restrictions on overnight camping.

"Shell Key is not a place for self- indulgence," said Bruce Riker, head of the county Department of Environmental Management.

"We did it the right way, and we have the full support of the County Commission and the state of Florida."

Nick Johnson can be reached at nickjohnson@sptimes.com or 893-8361.

Shell Key hosts a tamer party 07/08/08 [Last modified: Thursday, July 10, 2008 10:55am]
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