Hillsborough signals last call for the former Beer Can Island

The commission wants the 9-acre private island considered a preserve, not a commercial party site.
An aerial view of the east side of Pine Key Island, formerly known as Beer Can Island, off the coast of Apollo Beach, between Apollo Beach and MacDill Air Force Base.
An aerial view of the east side of Pine Key Island, formerly known as Beer Can Island, off the coast of Apollo Beach, between Apollo Beach and MacDill Air Force Base. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published March 8|Updated March 8

The Hillsborough County Commission is poised to yell “last call” for the offshore party venue formerly called Beer Can Island.

The owners of the 9-acre island, now marketed as Pine Key Tampa Bay, will be asked to abide by a proposed addition to the county’s land plan that would treat the island as a private nature preserve, effectively eliminating more intensive use as a commercial bar and special events center.

The move came from Commissioner Michael Owen after staff reported safety concerns from the Tampa Bay Pilots Association about the island’s proximity to shipping channels to and from Port Tampa Bay. The staff report, previously requested by Owen, also cited safety concerns raised by the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office and the county’s Fire Rescue Department that called for a designated landing spot for a helicopter in the event of an emergency evacuation.

“It’s an eyesore and it’s really a shame to see what this has become,” said Owen, who likened the island’s appearance to youths using lumber and mattresses to build forts in the woods.

But aesthetics weren’t the top concern of commissioners. The staff report noted the island, located west of Apollo Beach and southeast of MacDill Air Force Base, is just 390 feet south of a shipping channel. Another channel is 2,505 feet to the west.

The staff report from Adam Gormly, director of development services, said Pine Key owners already had asked for cargo-bearing ships to run at idle speed near the island because of the size of the wakes the vessels produce. Pine Key’s traffic also could require altering shipping schedules to accommodate the island activity.

“Port Tampa Bay expressed concerns over the potential for shipping schedules to be altered and the affect it could have on maritime commerce if this were to occur,” the report stated.

Gormly called the new information a “game changer” and commissioners apparently agreed. Owen said the county risked liability if it blessed the island’s ongoing party business after hearing the safety concerns.

The owners of Pine Key Island purchased the land in 2017 and turned it from an informal location for boaters to drop anchor and enjoy a cocktail into a membership-driven event venue serving alcohol and offering music and recreation like inflatable slides. But they ran afoul of county code enforcement officers after it was discovered they couldn’t obtain proper zoning because the land had never been given a designation in the county’s land plan.

The code enforcement case remains in abeyance while the owners attempt to obtain a land designation and zoning to continue operations. Commissioners declined the owners’ two previous attempts to navigate the zoning process. The commission rejected a quasi-public land label as too broad and noted it could mean a hospital could open on the island. Later, a newly crafted land category called island recreation failed to win commission approval because of environmental concerns from the Hillsborough County Environmental Protection Commission and the Sierra Club.

On Tuesday, Pine Key Island CEO Cole Weaver attempted to address the commission via telephone, but was not permitted to do so.

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“It’s so weird. It’s five years. They have questions. I have answers and they won’t let me answer them,” Weaver said in an interview afterward.

He said his staff is certified in CPR and first aid; a defibrillator is available on the island and an off-duty emergency medical technician works there. Licensed captains help with safe anchoring of boats and cameras and security staff help mitigate potentially bad behavior.

He also disputed Owen’s characterization of Pine Key as an eyesore, saying owners removed 200 bags of garbage from the island after they purchased it.

“I hope it doesn’t eliminate what we’re doing out there,” said Weaver. “We’ve been operating for five years so there’s not going to be a bigger impact (with approved zoning). I don’t know why they don’t understand that.”

Weaver said he was hopeful of an amicable resolution, but, he also didn’t rule out future litigation.

“It’s part of the game, I guess,“ he said.