Mayors of coastal communities across the region must walk a tightrope between ensuring a high quality of life for their constituents, providing a national destination for tourists, and balancing growth – all while preparing for the effects of climate change.
Six local beach mayors addressed these topics and more in a town hall meeting Thursday evening. Entitled “State of the Beaches,” the Institute for Strategic Policy Solutions at St. Petersburg College hosted the forum at Madeira Beach City Hall. Hosted by former news anchor Al Ruechel, Town Hall provided the public with a rare glimpse into what it takes to make Pinellas County’s consistently top-ranked beaches thrive.
Joining Ruechel on the dais were Mayor Alan Johnson of St. Pete Beach, Mayor Samuel Henderson of Gulfport, Mayor John Hendricks of Madeira Beach, Mayor Tyler Payne of Treasure Island, Mayor David Will of Redington Beach, Mayor Bill Queen of North Redington Beach and Mayor MaryBeth Henderson of Redington Shores. The discussion began with the respective mayors’ most pressing concerns for their communities, a recurring theme throughout the evening.
Hendricks started with something he says affects all beach towns along Gulf Boulevard — traffic.
“It’s a problem that I don’t know how we’re going to handle, frankly,” he said. “I will say to some people who have moved here expecting no traffic; you probably moved to the wrong area.
Hendricks added that managing growth is another concern and sought to dispel rumors that city officials would welcome hotels and condos reaching 10 to 12 stories in Madeira Beach. He said that was not true and the maximum height was 34 feet.
Johnson said St. Pete Beach has different issues than other coastal communities because of its size. With around 10,000 permanent residents, St. Pete Beach is larger than its counterparts. At any given time, Johnson said another 10,000 snowbirds and 30,000 tourists could occupy the city. This causes its population to vary from 10,000 to 50,000 – depending on the day of the week and the time of year.
Johnson noted that city officials have recently spent a lot of time and money strengthening the city’s infrastructure, such as its roads and sewer systems. What worries him most, however, are things he says are beyond his control, like rising sea levels and climate change. It employs four consultants who focus on different areas and meet once a month to determine the best paths forward, and officials use that data to formulate St. Pete Beach’s 2050 plan.
“But the problem of sea level rise is way beyond our capabilities from a financial perspective,” Johnson said. “So we’re going to need a lot of help.”
Henderson noted that Gulfport was a different community compared to other panelists. The town of 12,500 is located on Boca Ciega Bay rather than the Gulf of Mexico, and he said tourists come to experience its “old Florida charm” rather than its beaches. Despite her differences, Henderson said her main concerns were the same as the rest of the panel — growth management and environmental stewardship.
Pinellas is Florida’s most densely populated county, with 24 municipalities packed into a relatively small peninsula. Henderson called it “a lot of urbanization and a lot of impact on a coastal environment”.
“I think one thing we all agree on here is that once you don’t talk about Disney and the theme park, Florida’s wealth is in its waters,” a- he declared. “These are things we have to take care of to be that place people want to see.”
That wasn’t the only thing the six mayors agreed on.
When Ruechel asked the panel what they thought of the 2022 state legislative session, the six mayors were enthusiastic and unanimous in their disdain for what they feel is an attack on “home rule.” Essentially, local self-government allows local governments to make what they believe are the best decisions for their communities, rather than state legislators.
MaryBeth Henderson said what she took away from the session was 100%, definitely the erosion of house rule. She stressed that those closest to the community should decide what is best for their residents. “The people of Tallahassee have no idea what’s going on in Redington Shores,” she said.
Payne echoed the sentiments of his colleagues about communities losing the power to govern their people. During his travels in Tallahassee, he discovered that certain cities in the state were to blame for passing ordinances that the state felt should be reversed. He said communities in Pinellas are bearing the brunt of decisions made in places like South Florida.
Payne noted a local legislative victory, legislation helping coastal towns eliminate the growing number of derelict ships polluting waterways. He said Treasure Island is lucky not to have as many as other areas, but he realizes that’s a big issue for his colleagues.
“Our sheriff acted very quickly, and together with Rep. (Linda) Chaney, they were able to clean up over 30 abandoned vessels from across the county,” Payne said. “So I consider it a big win for us.”
Ruechel asked the panel how they balance growth while increasing the revenue needed to prepare for the future, especially amid universal concerns about rising sea levels. Payne said tax rates along The area’s beaches are all significantly lower than those in St. Petersburg, and officials should keep an open mind to development to increase the tax base.
Hendricks called this balancing act a significant challenge for Madeira Beach. He said the city’s mileage rate, at 2.75%, is the third lowest in the county. However, he said more revenue was needed and noted a $13 million roads and sewers project last year.
He added that no one, including himself, likes to see their taxes go up. However, he said many residents are also struggling with the economic development needed to solve current and future problems.
“And that’s what a lot of people don’t understand,” Hendricks said. “They’ve moved to heaven and kind of expect us to lift the drawbridge and not let anyone else in.
“But it doesn’t work that way.”