Anna Maria, the 7-mile Gulfside island just south of Tampa and St. Petersburg, has long been a favorite spot for day-trippers.
The sandy white beaches.
The fishing piers.
The small-town feel.
Okay, so finding public parking near the beach is a challenge on weekends and holidays. Then came Covid-19, and some island parking drama that could make the July 4th weekend interesting.
(In related holiday news, two of the three island towns, Holmes Beach and the city of Anna Maria, just adopted orders mandating face coverings in public when you can’t socially distance. So if you go, don’t forget your mask.)
Back when the beaches closed for the coronavirus health crisis, public parking was shut down to help enforce it.
“It worked,” said Holmes Beach Mayor Judy Titsworth. “It kept the numbers down.”
But after the county re-opened beaches, the city took away 1,100 parking spaces previously open to the public in and around residential neighborhoods.
Holmes Beach Police Chief Bill Tokajer said the move was “to give some balance back to our residential neighborhoods.” In other words, it would protect people who live near the beach and deal with trash, dirty diapers, beach-goers who urinate in their yards and others who help themselves to residents’ hoses to rinse themselves off.
“We are not pro- or anti-day tripper,” Tokajer said. “We love our visitors to come out here who are respectful and responsible.”
But, he said, “this is a residential island, not a tourist mecca alone.”
Not everyone was happy, including off-islanders and even locals who had used that parking. Some called it a coronavirus power-grab.
Earlier this month, people protested outside Holmes Beach City Hall, holding up signs that said, “Save Our Beach Parking!” and “Beaches 4 All.” Florida Senate president Bill Galvano and state Rep. Will Robinson, both Bradenton Republicans, sent a letter to the mayor expressing “growing concern” about restricting public access to public beaches.
“We respectfully request that you re-evaluate plans to reduce on-street parking,” the letter said.
Some questioned the city’s motives
In a letter to the editor in The Anna Maria Islander newspaper, Anna Maria resident Mike Coleman said that denying taxpayers beach access amounted to “an elitist, classist and not too subtly racist statement ... that these beaches are reserved for those of us rich enough and lucky enough to get here first. The rest of you keep out.”
“That is so disgusting,” Titsworth said. “To accuse us of being racist over parking.”
Recently, the city decided that more than 600 of those 1,100 spots will be brought back as residential parking by permit. The rest remain closed to parking.
Meanwhile, the town that makes up the northern end of the island — Anna Maria — was feeling the effects.
“So for two weeks in a row, we were just inundated with overflow from Holmes Beach,” said Anna Maria Mayor Dan Murphy. “Our streets are small, and we’re a 1 square-mile city.”
The beach was packed with little distancing, he said, adding, “It looked like Coney Island.” So Anna Maria blocked off 80 of its own street parking spaces and put up ominous signs about parking fines.
“We had to get people’s attention,” the mayor said, adding that most of the spaces have been reopened and the signs are down.
All of it illustrates the island’s struggle to maintain its heart in a county that gets 700,000 tourists a year, many of them flocking to a place where two-lane streets can become gridlocked with a rush of beach-goers.
Titsworth said that Holmes Beach is still providing “a ton of parking” for visitors — 1,300 spaces.
“But they have to understand that if we didn’t put in limits, no one would want to come out here,” she said. “The character of the city would be gone.”
What made people fall in love with the island “wasn’t a paved parking lot,” she said.
Chief Tokajer said that on Father’s Day weekend, more than 62,000 cars came on the island. The county parking lot at the entrance was full by 10 a.m.
“We will never have the amount of parking for the amount of traffic we have that comes out on the island,” he said.
Tokajer’s advice for parking potential for the upcoming holiday?
“Get there early,” he said. “Very early.”