A weekend at The Colony.  A visit to Holmes Beach. A summer getaway in Anna Maria. For so many living today on the islands adorning Florida’s west coast, their first introduction to the area came as a visitor. It’s why the islands boast more pool houses than schoolyards, why it’s easier to catch a trolley than a commuter bus, why golf and tennis facilities are a golf-cart ride away but doctor visits require hopping to the mainland. Of course, many of the visitors to Longboat Key and Anna Maria Island eventually call the archipelago home, and those who desire a quiet life in tropical tranquility. But the habits of tourists and homeowners increasingly clash in their definitions of paradise, and such discourse now guides the island politic. 

“Tourism doesn’t serve a high-end residential community,” says Gene Jaleski, a Longboat Key politician. “There are different lifestyles.” In turn, those lifestyles have different needs—and they make up different constituencies. It does, however, serve to keep the restaurant and shop workers employed, and to make sure more than personal wealth flows in the local economy. Indeed, the tourist development tax collected on the islands exceeds that captured by tourists sleeping on the mainland. And any legal curb on travelers could impact the lives of those islanders working cash registers. As governments consider a stop to building new places for visitors to stay, business leaders brace for the consequence. “That’s going to hurt working folks around here,” worries Ed Chiles, owner of The Sandbar and other island restaurants.

In a community where many restaurants close down for the summer and governments often can’t legally convene for major decisions when snowbirds aren’t in town, the push and pull of a marketplace that relies on seasonal renters and city halls that serve long-term residents, the struggle has come to dominate conversation along the Gulf Coast.


Making Rooms

The question of how many tourists should be welcome on Longboat Key incites more than kitchen table debate here. The matter this March actually appeared on a town-wide ballot, where voters made the decision on whether to allow an extra 237 tourism units to be built at the site of the Colony. Ultimately, they elected not to approve that project. That voters even have the power by town charter to decide the future of a long-time resort on the key shows the level to which the citizens of Longboat Key have fought to have a voice in the future of the tourism industry. The charter, for example, prohibits the commission from voting in the summertime.

There are still new hotels opening on the island, though, of late, they have come in place of existing structures. Ocean Properties, owner of the Resort at Longboat Key Club, plans to open Zota Beach Resort in June of this year, according to Marketing Director Sandra Rios. 

But the 187-room luxury hotel, on north Longboat Key, replaces the Longboat Key Hilton Beachfront Resort. The project was the first to take advantage of 250 new tourist units made available on the island to hospitality developers in 2008, but only 85 of the units were tapped for Zota to allow development of a new hotel tower while more than 100 existing rooms simply got renovated.  

The question of Longboat’s future as a visitor’s playground or a retiree’s paradise also played a role in city elections, where Jaleski ran for an open town commission seat on an openly anti-tourism platform. The at-large city election pitted Jaleski against Jim Brown; both men previously served on the Longboat Key Town Commission together. Jaleski wanted the town to find ways to stop an increase in tourism—and maybe even decrease it. But Brown wasn’t rapidly pro-growth either. “We do need to think carefully about how to give out those units until we prove there is a need,” he says. A district election in town pitting incumbent Jack Daly against conservation activist Larry Grossman also revolved around the question of how much tourism should be allowed on the islands.

Ultimately, the more anti-growth voices of Jaleski and Grossman lost, with Longboat voters electing Brown and Daly back on the board. But the same day, voters also shot down a minor density increase on Gulf of Mexico Drive in addition to rejecting the Colony plan.

And as Airbnb and other rental services grow in popularity, Longboat Key politicians uniformly agree something needs to be done to better enforce the payment of bed taxes and curb abuse by homeowners constantly renting units while skirting zoning. And north of that, discussion of when homeowners should be allowed to rent on the island has seized the body politic on Anna Maria Island.


Knowing the Neighbors

For Frank Harrison, 11th Street in Bradenton Beach serves as his full-time home. But nobody else in the houses around his property can say the same. While this once was a neighborhood of people who moved to an island paradise, the road today serves as an address primarily for rental homes, the beds filled with tourists and vacationers renting a place to stay for a week.

“I’m the sole resident left here,” Harrison laments. He and his wife, Priscilla Von Ahnen, remain the only homeowners on the road who live in town all year. The real problem to Harrison, though, is the up to 124 houseguests who can legally check into the numerous large homes up and down the street. And that’s not even counting when a larger group than the law allows checks in and you have 15 people partying until dawn in a home that should only hold eight. “My street is barely 400 feet long, but knock on doors up and down the street and every one of them is a weekly renter,” Harrison says. “The city has failed us.”

It’s a cry heard up and down the streets on Anna Maria Island, where three different municipal governments have to contend with a rhetorical war between renters and residents. In Bradenton Beach, voters in November passed a city referendum enacting a six-month moratorium on new building permits for homes with more than four bedrooms. The effort, which was approved by an overwhelming number for the tiny island city, had been spearheaded by Von Ahnen, and while the word “moratorium” tends to send shivers down the spine of those in the building industry, Harrison still worries the effort won’t have enough of a long-term effect. Indeed, the efforts seen thus far in Bradenton Beach still seem far less than those seen anywhere else on the island.

Holmes Beach city commissioners last year passed a four-bedroom limit on any new construction. In Anna Maria, a new ordinance that went into effect in April states no rental can house more than eight people, even if it was built to host more. The struggle between those who live on the island and those who just visit has been amplified over the years, and it may never go away completely. But many hope that the great wars of recent times—height restrictions, bedroom limits, occupancy rules, zoning fights—may be nearing an end, regardless of whether the conclusion is a satisfying one.


Limits of the Law

The Bert Harris Act first became law in Florida in 1995 and since has been central to property rights cases around the state. In short, the law creates consequence when governments limit the rights of owners to use land as they were allowed when the property was purchased. After Anna Maria’s new ordinance governing rentals in the city on the northernmost end of the island went into effect, the city got flooded with claims. At the end of the 150-year filing period, some $30 million in damages was being sought by dozens of property owners.

The barrage of claims came after a sweeping ordinance won unanimous approval from Anna Maria City Commissioners in April. The new law put in place penalties on property managers when more than eight renters occupied a home and instituted “quiet hours” between 10pm and 8am. City Commissioner Dale Woodland said at the meeting the new regulations were needed to protect those who live on the island full-time. “We’re not trying to be bad people, but we are trying to preserve and protect our residential neighborhoods,” he said. Piles of letters from attorneys representing homeowners acknowledge as much, but say the city needs to pay up. Attorney Richard Bass in a letter on behalf of rental landlord company Three Gulfs notes the new rule makes it a violation of law for a home built in 1975 to hold 12 people to now house any more than eight. That means a substantial loss of income for renters. The same logic is applied to dozens of other claims.

“The local lawyers love the cities of Anna Maria, Bradenton Beach and Holmes Beach,” says Chiles sarcastically. Chiles, son of the late Gov. Lawton Chiles, has visited Anna Maria Island since childhood and has run the Chiles Group restaurants on the island for decades. He has also been involved in development efforts like the Pine Avenue Restoration Project, and he greets the calls for stricter ordinance with hesitation.

On the one hand, Chiles says the appeal of Anna Maria Island to tourists and residents alike remains the relaxing tranquility. He wishes more developers would act respectfully with plans—the Pine Avenue Restoration Project built to two stories even though developers legally could go rise to three—but feels reactive legislating has put the city in a problematic place. “Long-term moratoriums?” he says. That could lead to financial issues for working families that count on tourist dollars to back their paychecks. And if the city has to settle out of court with owners claiming Bert Harris burdens, it’s quite likely officials will have to pay out millions and still let old owners get grandfathered in, allowing people to pack into homes unless they were built after the recent ordinance was passed.

But Chiles also feels frustrated that residents angry with the party-makers renting homes aren’t addressing the real issues. Traffic on and off the island, he says, doesn’t get impacted as much by weekly renters, who tend to live almost entirely within the home or within walking distance on the beach, as it does by those on the mainland in Manatee County who have to drive to shore. Worse, any budgetary cost to the city in legal fees hurts chances at improving infrastructure and easing congestion.


Economic Flow

On top of everything, the financial importance of tourism on Anna Maria Island proves hard to overstate. Of the $11.86 million collected in tourist development tax throughout Manatee County, $5.68 million comes from the municipalities on Anna Maria, Bradenton Beach and Holmes Beach. And beyond just the tax collected on rental fees, the visitors to the island represent the wealthiest tourists buying trinkets and eating meals in area restaurants while they are here.

“We target a visitor with a household income of $125,000 or higher,” says Elliott Falcione, executive director of the Bradenton Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. “We feel that’s the market that can afford the assets offered in our island community.” Like most coastal counties in Florida, tourism remains one of the most enduring and important industries to the local economy.

Of course, Manatee officials don’t want island rentals driving all activity in visitor sphere. Palmetto, which generates a mere $37,000 in bed tax each year, hosts the county’s conference center, and Falcione notes an adjacent hotel to the center is in the works. County Commissioners in September approved a plan from Improvement Network Development Partners for a 250-room hotel managed by Starwood Resorts. 

As planners work with the visitors’ bureau on citing new hotel space in Manatee, Falcione says his staff focuses its efforts on underserved areas like Lakewood Ranch and Downtown Bradenton because that’s the only space where land large enough for hotels can still be assembled. “The urban core and east Manatee County are the main areas where there are still capacity for hotels,” he says.

But it will take a lot of high-rises to outweigh the importance of rental homes on the coast. Falcione notes that only 15 percent of all accommodations rented by visitors to Manatee County each year are in hotels and motels. The rest all stay in rentals. Therefore, limits on how many can stay on the islands means limits on a significant chunk of visitors to the county each year. But then, what will people find when they stay here? Chiles often jokes that things he hated about Anna Maria are things he loves about the island today. There’s nothing to do—besides relax. Stores need customers buying fancy resort wear and restaurants need someone ordering grouper sandwiches, but if they wanted the buzz of Daytona there’s a whole other coast of Florida to visit. And politicians don’t get elected by tourists but by residents. Holmes Beach, which collected $2.95 million in bed tax, had just 605 people vote in November on the building moratorium there. But Harrison says he fights for limits on rentals as much for the tourists coming to the island as he does for the full-timers. When he and his wife gathered petitions to put the moratorium on the ballot, he knocked door-to-door on every block of the city, more often than not encountering people staying on the island short-term who could not sign a petition. But many did support the effort, he says.

“Frankly, I don’t like tourists, but I’ve talked to many of them,” Harrison says. “Many of them have told me this is their last year. They say ‘I’m not coming here again.’ They know it’s not the way it used to be.”

Maybe saving the quality of life, or restoring it to something closer to what it was when Harrison moved to town 31 years ago, will mean more tourists have an enjoyable time on the island. Maybe, Harrison wonders, efforts  by locals to limit rentals will actually bring many of these renters back.

Just not all of them.