Nude beach in store for Key West?

KEY WEST — This come-as-you-are island city features a nude rooftop bar, guest houses with clothing-optional pools and the 10-day, world-famous debauchery known as Fantasy Fest, where body paint passes as clothing.

On the island’s public beaches, though, going au naturel has been illegal since 1983.

That might change soon. A group of naturists is campaigning to amend the city’s nudity ordinance to allow a section of city-owned beach to go nude.

City Commissioner Bill Verge plans to propose at this week’s city commission meeting an Oct. 6 referendum. Advocates say the change could bring more tourists to the cash-strapped city.

Monroe County Commissioner Sylvia Murphy liked the idea when it surfaced in April.

“No one visiting us (from other countries) understands why we are such prudes,” she said.

But the city, which has ultimate jurisdiction, has been pretty strait-laced when it comes to nude beaches, despite its free-spirited image.

Key West outlawed public nudity 26 years ago after Pier House, a Key West hotel, instituted a clothing-optional beach for its guests.

“The fathers and mothers of the city were concerned it was going to be widespread,” said Jimmy Weekley, Key West’s former mayor, who is now running for a commission seat.

‘‘What’s humorous is the commissioner at the time who sponsored the ordinance . . . advertised his plumbing business on books of matches with nude women.”

Violators of the ordinance can be fined up to $500 and even sent to jail for 60 days. Nudity on private property is allowed — provided there’s a fence at least 6 feet high, and not the see-through chain-link kind.

Verge said the commission has “bigger fish to fry with all the budget problems. But if the community wants a nude beach, then the community can vote for it.”

He said the commission hasn’t escaped the jokes and double entendres — the inevitable “turn the other cheek” among them.

Members of Florida Keys Free Beaches, who are pushing for the change, say residents just need to grow up.

“Some people have the misconception getting naked on beaches is sexual,” said Tracy Leigh, a founder of the group. “It’s not. It’s about being accepted for who you are and being totally free.”

For years, the most popular spot to get naked in public in Key West was the Atlantic Shores Resort’s legendary clothing-optional pool bar. Two years ago, it was demolished to make way for an upscale hotel.

Leigh says a nude beach might help the city’s economic woes.

She went on local radio station KONK 1680-AM last week, telling listeners that a clothing-optional beach would attract American naturists and international travelers who frequent such beaches in their home countries.

No official studies have been done. But based on the 1.3 million people estimated annually to use Miami-Dade’s clothing-optional section of Haulover Beach, Leigh claims about 200,000 people would use a nude beach in Key West each year.

Shirley Mason, founder of Haulover’s clothing-optional section that’s in its 18th year, said there are now only three public beaches in Florida that allow nudity.

“Most people find it shocking that Key West doesn’t have one,” she said.

The Key West Innkeeper’s Association conducted an informal survey that showed 80 percent of 225 tourism-based business owners supported a nude beach. The Florida Keys Tourist Development Council has stayed neutral on the issue.

The quest for a nude beach in Key West began at a Monroe County Commission meeting in April, and took off with the formation of Florida KeysFree Beaches, which sought help from Mason’s South Florida Free Beaches organization that started Haulover Park’s clothing-optional section.

At the July 7 city commission meeting, Mason touted nude beaches as family friendly, clean, safe and patrolled by “beach ambassadors.”

“Going to nude beaches is like going to Sunday school compared to what happens when you take a tour of Duval Street” during Fantasy Fest, said Sloan Bashinsky, a mayoral candidate who first proposed the idea at the county commission meeting.

Leigh believes the best site for a nude beach in Key West is the little-used east section of city-owned Smathers Beach near the airport.

The only outspoken opposition so far has come from kiteboarders who use that end of Smathers Beach.