In search of solutions, civil debate to Anna Maria Island's challenges

September 15, 2013 

Please stop the hate mail. This community should be engaging in a constructive conversation about the dilemma on Anna Maria Island. The issue involves everyone in Manatee County who enjoys this Old Florida slice of paradise. Those beautiful sandy beaches belong to one and all.

Islanders appreciate that. What they don't appreciate is the disrespect shown by the few ne'er-do-wells who park on residential properties and sometimes block driveways; leave their garbage strewn on public and private property, and even urinate in yards. Disgusting. Year-round residents, under siege, have long past the boiling point.

But the flood of hate mail to Holmes Beach Mayor Carmel Monte and Anna Maria Mayor SueLynn only serves to cloud the very real issues with emotional outbursts, not reasoned thought. That said, people are understandably -- and justifiably -- upset.

The ignition spark

The issue, reported in several Herald articles in August, exploded across the Internet after a Sept. 4 letter to the editor sparked outrage -- indeed, hundreds of comments. The letter quoted a statement that Monti made during an August meeting of the county's Tourist Development Council. He called for discussion about "what type of visitor we want" on the island. That infuriated the public and the conversation spiraled downward.

While the remark does smack of an elitism that brings to mind gated communities, Monti told this Editorial Board that the comment referred to respect -- that the island is first and foremost a community and not just a tourist destination, and visitors should practice the Golden Rule. His point is well taken, despite the awkward phrase he choose to articulate it.

Islanders are dealing with another problem besides the boorish and even criminal behavior by some. The other difficulty is congestion and sometimes complete gridlock. Too many vehicles flood the island on weekends and holidays as well as season. Parking is at a premium; there simply aren't enough public spaces. Neighborhood streets become clogged with cars.

The very idea that "day-trippers" are the problem and they must be discouraged from visiting is unsettling -- especially to mainland Manatee County residents who frequent the island and observe the common decency that others lack. With visitation skyrocketing over the past two years, SueLynn points out that many day-trippers hail from other counties -- a statement supported by the number of parking tickets issued.

The issue of paid parking in the cities of Holmes Beach and Anna Maria has been on the agenda for some time now, under discussion by both city commissions as well as citizen committees. As this is not just an island issue; mainland residents are following the debates, too, and Manatee County government is involved.

Parking meters at Manatee County Public Beach and along nearby streets as well as in Anna Maria are one consideration. Only high fees would discourage day-trippers and may actually encourage more neighborhood and illegal parking as beach-goers search for free parking. High prices would send an unwelcome message to struggling families, too.

The parking garage idea

The idea of a parking garage at Manatee beach has been bandied about, one that would hold plenty of cars and spare side streets of vehicles. A three-story structure with a roof-top restaurant sounds intriguing.

One idea that will never gain widespread support is the placement of toll booths by the three bridges onto Anna Maria Island. Some hate mail has been directed at SueLynn on this issue.

She did not propose toll booths during that recent TDC meeting. Her comment -- "A toll to come on the island is no longer a laughing matter" -- reflects general conversations on the matter, not an official endorsement. But the remark got misconstrued and the barbs flowed. SueLynn's letter to the editor, published Thursday, did little to defuse the enmity and sharply critical comments -- that's how inflamed this has become.

What is the solution? Manatee County residents should be concerned about the character of the community and the quality of life on the island. That should be the topic of discussion -- and a civil debate.

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