APOLLO BEACH — The Hillsborough County Property Appraiser’s website says that the Pine Key — the popular boating and camping destination known by locals as Beer Can Island – should be 23.62 acres.
But a recent survey of the island shared with the Tampa Bay Times said it is 8.9 acres. The owners said that is more than two acres smaller than in December 2017 when they purchased the island, located between Apollo Beach and MacDill Air Force Base.
The owners blame erosion, some caused by natural waves and some by waves created by the large ships that cruise through the nearby channel.
“If we let this go, in five years this won’t be an island,” owner John Gadd said. “It will be a sandbar. We need to save it.”
Gadd and the other owners want to build a living shoreline made of natural materials such as plants, rocks and oyster beds to slow the waves that are dragging the island into Tampa Bay.
That could cost as much as $500,000, the ownership group said. They started a GoFundMe page in October. So far, they have raised less than $1,000.
“We’ve had an environmental study done and have a team in place,” owner John McHenry said. “We need to act fast. The waves are chainsawing the beaches.”
Meanwhile, whenever erosion takes down a tree, the owners chop it up and line the island’s edges with the logs.
“We’re building a dam like beavers,” owner Cole Weaver said. “We’re doing whatever we can.”
The island is shrinking on all sides, the owners said, but it is worst in the south and west.
While studying Global Sustainability and Geographic Information Systems at the University of South Florida, Tyler DeMonde used aerial mapping technology to investigate the erosion of the island. According to his report published online in December 2019, the island lost nearly four acres of land from 2007 to 2017, bringing it to around 11 acres.
The Times used a drone to snap an aerial photograph of the island in January 2018 and then did so again on Wednesday. Comparing the photos, the beach areas appear smaller.
The owners purchased the island with no roads, electricity or plumbing for $63,650 from Imperial Island, whose president — Carolyn Thatcher — also serves as president of the Tampa Bay Marina.
Beer Can Island was where Tampa Bay Marina dropped sand from dredging operations at its marina in Apollo Beach.
Part of the sale included allowing the company to continue to drop sand on the island, but they have yet to do so.
The current owners said they reached out to Tampa Bay Marina and several other dredging operations about sand, but that option now seems too extreme.
The sand would have to be dropped on the island’s center and then spread out, they said, and that would require the removal of all the trees.
“Everyone knows it as Beer Can Island,” Weaver said. “But it is actually Pine Key. How can we take the trees from Pine Key?”
Since purchasing the island, the current owners have hired security, installed toilets and trash cans, require fees to camp and sell island memberships that provide entry to private parties.
They claim to have brought order to a once-lawless island.
Hillsborough County has pushed back on those efforts.
County Code Enforcement records say the owners are currently in violation of “operating a beach/membership club on the island without first seeking approval.” That issue is ongoing.
Code Enforcement also demanded that the owners cease all enterprises in 2018. The island has no zoning, they argued, so no activities or construction are permitted. The owners prevailed by successfully arguing that the county doesn’t have jurisdiction over an un-zoned property. The island is believed to be the only such property in the county.
Among the debates in 2018 was whether a floating tiki bar and floating chickee hut were permanent structures, which code enforcement said would have required building permits.
Code Enforcement argued both were permanent because they were on land on the island’s south side. The owners claimed that area was submerged for part of the day, making each a floating structure.
Neither structure is there today.
“That area is now submerged all the time because of erosion,” owner James Wester said. “And the waves were really beating them up. So, we had to take them apart. Nature won.”