Saturday, May 26, 2018
Public safety

Sheriff's office to bring stricter enforcement to Gandy Beach

ST. PETERSBURG

Dusk's rosy tint had nearly faded over Gandy Beach, but Brandon Vazquez and his half dozen friends showed no signs of fading — or leaving.

Two hours earlier, Vazquez had backed his Toyota pickup close to the gently lapping waters of Tampa Bay and raised a patio umbrella over the tailgate. Now hot dogs were warming on a portable charcoal grill and Lynyrd Skynyrd's Sweet Home Alabama blared from the truck's cab.

"We'll stay until we get kicked out," said Vazquez, a 20-year-old sheet metal worker from Tampa.

The chances of getting booted from the roughly milelong strip of sand that extends between the Getaway Restaurant and the Gandy Bridge are about to go up.

Locals who don't care to mingle with tourists along the Gulf of Mexico's sugary sand typically pack this rutted expanse on Tampa Bay known as Beer Can Beach and the Redneck Riviera. But there are rules. County ordinances, actually, that routinely get flouted even though they have been on the books for a while.

So the Florida Department of Transportation, the agency that oversees the beach, recently posted new signs so beachgoers won't be able to say they weren't warned when Pinellas County Sheriff's deputies show up.

"We don't want to close it but we have to curtail some of these issues," DOT spokeswoman Kris Carson said. "We're just trying to keep it clean for the community."

People relaxing along the shore Friday night say they understand the common sense decrees. Don't dump trash. Pick up after your dog. Don't destroy the mangroves that line the beach's western section.

They wonder, though, why alcohol is completely banned and small, open fires are forbidden.

"If we want to come down and have a beer, why can't we?" said Jessica Deal, a 21-year-old Seminole resident who met Vazquez and half a dozen other friends. This night, their own visible open containers were Coca-Cola cans.

Perhaps the most onerous rule, in their minds: Leave after sunset unless you're fishing.

"I think that's a silly rule," said Derrick Eakins, 35, who came to the beach with his girlfriend and their two children, ages 8 and 4, who wore blue, glowing plastic anklets as they ran along the water's edge. "They should put in more lights so families feel safe."

Derek Bayer, 41, doesn't drink but regularly comes from Tampa to swim at Gandy. It beats driving all the way across Pinellas County to the gulf, and he doesn't see any problems except for the occasional aggressive dog roaming without a leash.

"It's a nice area where people should be allowed to have a bit of freedom as long as it's not imposing harm on anyone else," Bayer said as he stood shirtless and shin-deep in the murky brown water.

From the DOT's perspective, there are plenty of impositions.

All-terrain vehicles and wanna-be monster truck drivers scar the beach. The same mangroves that provide food and cover for wildlife also offer pockets of semiprivacy prone to sex and drug use. And the beach's location, next to a dead-straight stretch of Gandy Boulevard, is a good vantage point for spectators who gather to watch illegal late-night drag racing.

The department picks up, on average, a ton of trash from the area every week, much of it in the form of glass bottles, Carson said. It costs more than $15,000 a year to deal with the garbage.

Sheriff's Sgt. Elizabeth Brady said the rules at Gandy Beach are the same as at the county's other beaches, but people tend to behave differently there. Between early April and early June, deputies were dispatched to the Gandy Beach area 67 times, mostly for reasons typical to any area: traffic issues, suspicious vehicles, theft, trespassing and people in need.

In the next few weeks, deputies will embark on an education campaign, Brady said.

"We're not going to go out and start writing everybody citations," she said.

But they will eventually begin to hand out trespass warnings for people loitering after dark, and citations for open alcohol containers.

Vazquez and his friends didn't tempt fate for too long. About 10 p.m., they tossed their trash into one of the 50-gallon drums that serve as garbage cans and headed to a nearby country bar.

"Even if we did get kicked out," he said, "we've got other places to hang out."

Tony Marrero can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8779. Follow @tmarrerotimes on Twitter.

   
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