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Visions of future collide on a sunny barrier island

The Gulf of Mexico is especially blue and vibrant on Sunset Beach, at the southern end of Treasure Island, one of the string of barrier islands along the Pinellas County coast.

Or maybe it seems so blue because of guilty pleasure. I have sneaked out on a sunny weekday afternoon to conduct field research. To be specific, I am researching the open-air bar at Nick's Seabreeze Bar & Grill.

Nick's is one of a cluster of sandy watering holes located at the key junction where Gulf Boulevard, the main drag, splits off to Sunset Beach. Follow the "No Outlet" sign south to the cute, sometimes quirky, Key West-y houses on the one-block avenues that lead to the water on either side.

If instead from this junction you head back to the north along Gulf Boulevard, then on your left along the beach you will pass a long row of small and charming _ but definitely aging _ mom-and-pop hotels. It is a throwback to a pre-Disney kind of Florida.

This is the field of combat.

The people of the incorporated city of Treasure Island are deeply divided over the future of this beachfront. Some say the mom-and-pop hotels will not last forever but neither can they grow enough under current rules.

Should the city allow larger, taller construction, and denser development?

"If we don't do this," says resident Peter Jon Volmar, an architect who supports new rules, "they'll just start tearing these things down, and start building set after set of five-condos-over-parking." It's hard enough to see the water now, he says.

But opponents fear a beachfront marred with large, soulless chain hotels, right down to the top of Sunset Beach, where they say there should be a buffer zone that leads into the neighborhood. They fear that their community's unique charm will be lost forever.

"To me, it's crazy," says Heidi Horak, a Sunset Beach resident, a real estate attorney and a leader of the opposition. She says the proposed new rules have been written "to give certain development interests a windfall."

The opponents worry that it is a done deal at the City Commission. Horak says about 1,600 voters _ more than have even ever voted in a city election _ have signed a petition, enough to force an election if necessary. They have packed city meetings and taken out ads in the newspaper.

Two specific proposals are at the heart of the fight. One is a tradeoff for developers of new hotels. They could make buildings taller, up to more than 100 feet, if they agreed to things such as wider setbacks, landscaping and providing public beach access.

The second change involves greater density. Those who owned property on both sides of Gulf Boulevard could use their allowed density for both parcels on the beach side, leaving the other side for parking or other ancillary facilities.

Volmar contends that the public would actually get a better view of the water, along with more attractive landscaping and public access. Even if there are more parking lots on the east side, they would have to be landscaped and made more pleasant. There might also be tennis courts, or even marinas facing the bay side of the island, he says.

"We're losing our hotel base," Volmar says. "When we lose our hotel base, we lose our tourist base. When we lose our tourist base, we lose our business." More of the tax burden is borne by residents, he says.

A group called the "Coalition for the Beautification of Treasure Island" has taken out its own ads, calling opponents "radicals."

Radicals on one side, profiteering conspirators on the other.

Also, neighbors. Maybe they can find a middle ground, instead of leaving a permanent scar. The next meeting to discuss the changes is Aug. 7.

The people of Treasure Island, as in Madeira Beach to the north, St. Pete Beach to the south and many other waterfront communities, are wrestling with what their future should look like. From the perspective of a sunny, idle afternoon on the beach, one cheers for things not to change at all. But they always do; the only question is how.

_ You can reach Howard Troxler at (727) 893-8505 or at