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Hillsborough’s Pine Key Island seeks to stay afloat in zoning dispute

The County Commission will consider a new land category, island recreation, for the 9 acres in Tampa Bay.
Pine Key Tampa Bay, formerly known as Beer Can Island, is seen in this image taken from a drone on Jan. 10, 2018, in Tampa Bay. The owners, four partners who purchased the land for $63,650, are seeking a new land use category from Hillsborough County - Island recreation.  [CHRIS URSO   |   Times]
Pine Key Tampa Bay, formerly known as Beer Can Island, is seen in this image taken from a drone on Jan. 10, 2018, in Tampa Bay. The owners, four partners who purchased the land for $63,650, are seeking a new land use category from Hillsborough County - Island recreation. [CHRIS URSO | Times]
Published Sep. 15|Updated Sep. 15

It hasn’t been smooth sailing for the owners of a private island in Tampa Bay.

The 9-acre island, operating as an offshore bar and special events venue, doesn’t fit neatly into any land use category governed by Hillsborough County.

So, last year, the owners of Pine Key Tampa Bay, formerly known as Beer Can Island, asked the county to consider their property for public/quasi-public use. It’s a broad category that encompasses recreation centers and tourist attractions, but also churches and hospitals.

The possibility, remote as it was, of the county blessing an island-based health care facility 2½ miles west of the mainland at Apollo Beach didn’t sit well with commissioners. They instructed government planners and Pine Key’s owners to try again.

That work ended up before commissioners again this week. They devised a brand new category — island recreation — to add to the county’s comprehensive land plan. It would apply to Pine Key and other privately owned islands that could be developed in the bay and rivers within Hillsborough County.

Adding the land category is a precursor to Pine Key’s owners applying for proper county zoning in order to settle an earlier code enforcement case.

But not everyone was ready to yell cheers. During a workshop Wednesday, Commissioner Mariella Smith repeated her prior concerns about potential environmental harm, particularly to shore birds, from increased activity on the island.

“I just think we should tread really carefully about what the ramification and precedents should be,” said Smith.

She said the county should seek input from the Tampa Bay Estuary Program, the Florida Audubon Society and Sierra Club, among others, before considering final approval.

The island’s location in the middle of the bay brings strong, high-energy waves to the shoreline that are not conducive to successful nesting for birds or turtles, said Peggy Mathews, Pine Key’s environmental and government relations director.

“Environmental assessments conducted by Environmental Science Associates has concluded there are no nesting birds, turtles or seagrass,” she said in an email to the Tampa Bay Times.

The ownership group of Russell Loomis, Cole Weaver, James Wester and John Gadd purchased the island in 2017 as a landing spot for a floating tiki hut bar. It had no running water and no electricity, but it came with the moniker Beer Can Island and a reputation as a spot where boaters could drop anchor and enjoy a cocktail while youngsters played on the sandy shore.

But, in 2018, Hillsborough County Code Enforcement demanded the owners cease all enterprises, including events and concerts for paid members, because no activities were allowed on properties without a zoning designation. Later, Code enforcement issued additional citations for “operating a beach/membership club on the island without first seeking approval” and constructing structures, including a “two level structure used for storage and sleeping quarters,” without obtaining permits. The land-use applications are an attempt to resolve the dispute.

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Currently, the island is accessible to private members. It boasts two bars and offers food and beverages, camping, fishing, swimming, an inflatable water slide and beach games.

The County Commission will consider adding the island recreation category to its land plan after a public hearing Oct. 13.

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