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Island Squabbles are More Complicated than Commentary Suggests

Anna Maria Island politicians have kicked up some sand recently with comments about crowds overwhelming their island's capacity in a way that they say challenges residents' quality of life. They've asked the TDC to back off on tourism and advertising campaigns and have begun discussing the possibility of paid parking at the public beaches.

Not unexpectedly, this has ruffled some feathers on the mainland. But the relationship between the two is more symbiotic than most residents will admit and in the end, all sides would be best served by more creative solutions that respect both those who've made their life on the island, as well as other county residents who have a right to enjoy the area's most treasured public resource.

For starters, it is true that the ability to live or own a business on a barrier island is heavily subsidized by taxpayers who do neither. Every year the federal government spends billions of taxpayer dollars on the dredging, nourishment and re-nourishment that is required to make such places inhabitable, picking up about 65 percent of the tab for such maintenance.

Because of that investment, they are assured access to what is considered a public resource – the beach. There have been more than a few coastal locales – Longboat Key among them – that have had their federal funding threatened by playing games with such access. From obscuring designated access points, or locating them too far from public parking to installing short term parking meters that have to be re-fed every 45 minutes, beach towns have sought ways to discourage day-trippers, but reasonable public access to the beaches they subsidize has pretty much been upheld.

There is also the matter of property insurance. Most coastal property would be cost prohibitive were policies underwritten in a manner that reflected their true risk. Instead, that risk is spread over other policies to create a viable market. So while coastal homes and businesses are more expensive to insure, they are still in a sense subsidized by other consumers. Then there is the federal relief following major storms, where billions of tax dollars are spent in reconstruction.

The end result on that side of the equation is a proposition – residing or running a business on the beach – that would not be possible for most parties were it not for such subsidies. But there's also the other side. Once that investment is made, the return is handsome. There's not one inch of unincorporated Manatee County on Anna Maria Island. As such, nearly all of their services are provided by the three municipalities. So islanders are also correct when they note that they send many more dollars to the county coffers than they see returned in services, which means that mainlanders benefit from the level of countywide services and lower property tax rates that such revenues help maintain. 

Now, let's look at the actual issues at hand. Does the island have parking challenges? Absolutely. While Coquina Beach is certainly less troubled than Holmes Beach in this regard, there's simply more beach (and residents that want to visit it) than there is parking and access, at least during peak times. It's a thin and pretty heavily developed island, so there are limited opportunities to change that. Charging for parking is unlikely to reduce demand and there will be tremendous public backlash. Building up, as in a parking garage, wouldn't be an easy solution either, especially when every bit of vertical real estate is someone's very expensive view.

Park and ride is a possibility, but is only likely to prove viable if it is on the island – or darn close, like Perico Preserve or along the causeway. People aren't going to want to leave their car at 75th Street and then suffer a slow bus ride over to the beach, where they'll be at the mercy of catching another one back – especially if it storms and everyone is trying to leave at once.

The cities could possibly ask the school district to open parking at the elementary school on the weekends or look to other public/private spaces that are not in use. The county could help out by adding a bus or trolley dedicated to such park and ride locations, making it less of a hassle to use. As far as illegal parking and unruly behavior, those are policing issues which can only really be addressed through the enforcement of corresponding statutes.

To be fair to the mayors, their comments – poorly worded as some of them may have been – have also been taken a bit out of context. No one was seriously suggesting a toll bridge (which also wouldn't be likely to solve any of the challenges) and I think it's fair for them to suggest that the Convention and Visitor Bureau ease up on marketing island tourism so heavily, considering the fact that it is so near capacity all of the time. In a business, you don't focus your advertising on something that's already flying off the shelves, especially when there's a limited supply. The CVB might consider spending more of their resources promoting other county attractions that aren't doing as well as the island.

In the end, we might have what you'd call the right kind of problem – an immensely popular attraction that draws tourist dollars as well as transplants eager to move not only to the island, but to the mainland and its attractive proximity to all things coastal. The challenges of that increasing success seem navigable into the foreseeable future. 

Meanwhile, we might all stand a reminder that the mainlanders are essential contributors to the island's way of life, just as the island residents and businesses play an important role in the overall quality of life in Manatee County – even for residents who never cross the bridge. Finding a way for both sides to get along without isolating anyone seems to be in the best interest of all parties.

Dennis Maley's column appears every Thursday and Sunday in The Bradenton Times. He can be reached at dennis.maley@thebradentontimes.com. Click here to visit his column archive. Click here to go to his bio page. You can also follow Dennis on Facebook.


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