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How the beach mayors are keeping their cities afloat

The beachfront on Treasure Island.

Posted on May 3, 2023

The inevitable looming threat of storms, and unwavering demands to keep up with the sea of tourists, are ongoing issues Pinellas County’s coastal communities are grappling with.

During the Institute for Strategic Policy Solutions’ second annual State of the Beaches: Mayors’ Town Hall event held Thursday evening inside Treasure Island City Hall, Pinellas County mayors governing the beach communities addressed the controversial issues affecting their residents’ quality of life.

The participating mayors included:
  • Indian Rocks Beach Mayor Joanne “Cookie” Kennedy
  • Redington Beach Mayor David Will
  • North Redington Beach Mayor William “Bill” Queen
  • Madeira Beach Mayor James “Jim” Rostek
  • Treasure Island Mayor Tyler Payne
  • Gulfport Mayor Sam Henderson
  • Redington Shores Vice Mayor Lisa Hendrickson

A snapshot of some of the questions and responses from the discussion panel: The responses have been edited for clarity. The mayors spoke on additional topics. ISPS will publish the full discussion from the event.  

From left to right: Treasure Island Mayor Tyler Payne, Redington Beach Mayor David Will, North Redington Beach Mayor William “Bill” Queen, Indian Rocks Beach Mayor Joanne “Cookie” Kennedy, Madeira Beach Mayor James “Jim” Rostek, Gulfport Mayor Sam Henderson, and Redington Shores Vice Mayor Lisa Hendrickson.

How do you encourage growth without shortchanging the environment or growing so fast that residents feel they are being pushed out? 

Queen: We control the density of any new buildings. The development has to maintain a certain density and not change our city’s infrastructure.

Kennedy: I feel we have to protect small businesses. Also, we continue to monitor changes in red tide and beach nourishment. We have a nonprofit called Greentown Kids, which teaches families about recycling and growing vegetables.

Rostek: This is a hot topic in Madeira Beach. I understand that when an entity buys a property, the group can develop it. The problem occurs when we don’t allow enough citizen input. The discussion has to be a three-way street. It has to be what the developer wants and meet the city’s needs and expectations of residents. With that, there’s the potential of incorporating green buildings to conserve water and help address transportation. We can’t widen Gulf Boulevard. We need to make sure our infrastructure, water, power and sewer system can support new development.

Henderson: We put height restrictions and setbacks on many of our properties. We provide incentives to expedite the process when someone is building a structure in a smaller envelope, but we are struggling with developers wanting to build directly on the setback. We have developers who have been less than honest about their properties. Not to throw the legislature under the bus, but we want to ability to control the use of plastics in our city. Fortunately, a lot of our businesses have been very keen to go down that road independently and ban plastics.

Payne: We have height and density restrictions; we aren’t planning on changing them. We have recently achieved a LEED for Cities Gold certification [a rating from the U.S. Green Building Council that recognizes a city’s sustainability efforts]. With the new City Hall building, which will be finished this summer, we put resiliency and sustainability at the forefront.

Will: We are a single-family residential community. Our setbacks, density and height restrictions were all set back in the ’50s and our residents don’t want to see that change. Any land use change in our charter would require a referendum vote of the people – plus an act of God.

Hendrickson: In Redington Shores, we put a lot of focus on our building codes and inspections. We have the regulatory framework for land use planning and protection of areas. Regarding recycling, we provide a recycling drop-off container by City Hall that residents can contribute to. We also recently established a beautification committee that’s embraced the Florida Friendly Landscaping Program, which is a partnership with the University of Florida, Pinellas County and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

How has your community changed as a result of Hurricane Ian?

Kennedy: Mayor Payne, Clearwater Vice Mayor Kathleen Beckman and our staff traveled to Sanibel Island. We had a four-hour meeting with their staff and mayor to discuss the aftermath of the hurricane so we could prepare for the future, such as our re-entry plans, debris removal, and how to transport heavy equipment and technology off the island in different ways. Another thing that came up is the problem we are having with insurance. I was dropped by my insurance for the first time this year.

Payne: Like Kennedy said, we saw the devastation five months after the storm hit, and it was still jaw-dropping to see the state of that island [Sanibel]. What took me by surprise was when we went out to the beach with the Sanibel Island mayor and saw the beach, the dune crossovers and walkways were completely washed away. It left these canyons.

Will: One of the biggest changes for us was the attitude shift of our residents. When the storm was approaching, we gave out 7,000 sandbags and asked residents if everything to bring them back after the storm, but after they saw the news coverage of the storm, residents said this was a waste of time to fill up sandbags and just left.

Queen: We have a plan: You see the storm is coming and you get off the beach. I don’t want to see 20% of my people dead because they stayed here during a 50-foot storm surge.

The shoreline on Treasure Island.

Can you talk about beach renourishment? 

Rostek: We were trying to get permits for John’s Pass in the previous administration and it’s been well over a year. We still don’t know when that will happen.

Payne: In Sunset Beach, we have negative 6.5% of the sand that was put on the beach in 2018. I say negative because it’s all of the sand placed on the beach and more. Hopefully, we will get sand in 2024, but the Army Corps of Engineers is putting sand on the beach that we are seeing disappear within four years. They need to re-engineer how this is being done.

Queen: We have a backup plan with the Army Corps of Engineers failing us and that backup plan is with Pinellas County. We met with every county commissioner and have assurances they are behind us to help us renourish our beaches. Renourishment affects three places – St. Pete Beach, Treasure Island and Sand Key. Sand Key is the most expensive portion of the project, costing about $45 million, which is not being funded by the Army Corps of Engineers.

Kennedy: Even if we started having sand renourishment as planned for 2024, we would still be behind. Belleair Beach has zero sand left. What happens when we have a storm? The sand helps protect our homes, and turtles. It supports a whole ecosystem. By not sealing the deal (with the Army Corps of Engineers), there are multiple issues we have to deal with.

E-scooters and e-bikes are traveling at top speeds and on the sand, what can be done about it? 

Payne: All of us have implemented micro-mobility ordinances that govern where those devices can and cannot go. In Treasure Island, you can’t ride them on the sidewalks, they need to be in bike lanes. They are allowed on the beach. Our cities try to collaborate on the rules to try to make it as uniform as possible.

Henderson: One of my concerns is seeing people press the button (to activate the flashing pedestrian crossing beacon), and they think there’s a force field around them. I would encourage people to be aware and drivers to pay attention to those crossings. We are still high on the list of pedestrian-related fatalities. We are one of the few areas the Pinellas Trail passes through and with House Bill 915 and Senate Bill 106, which recognize trail towns (communities located near long-distance nonmotorized recreational trails), we hope to secure more funding for safety programs.


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