Residents struggle to preserve paradise on Anna Maria Island

BRADENTON BEACH -- Frank Harrison's backyard is his haven. A path of mulch weaves around the plot of land lined with ferns and other plants. There's a bubbling fountain, a Buddha statue and wind chimes.

Cypress trees dot the backyard, providing blankets of shade for Harrison, who sat there in a wooden swing Tuesday afternoon. He planted them himself.

"This is a place where I come when I just want to be alone," he said. "It's my own little Hundred Acre Woods, just like in 'Winnie the Pooh.'"

For 71-year-old Harrison, who lives with his wife, Priscilla Von Ahnen, this backyard is one of few places left for him to feel peace on their sliver of Anna Maria Island -- an area drastically different from when Harrison settled here 41 years ago.

"When I first moved to Bradenton Beach, it was much slower," the retired school counselor said. "It was much simpler."

Back then, Harrison said there was just one bar and restaurant -- and a few stores -- on Bridge Street, which is now active. Traffic wasn't a problem then and neither was congestion. You could even come and go to town anytime you wanted, he said.

That's no longer possible.

With the 7-mile barrier island's increasing popularity come pressures such as noise, parking woes and the proliferation of weekly vacation rentals in residential neighborhoods. Residents routinely cry the island is losing its treasured position as an "Old Florida" family-oriented beach community.

Once considered a hidden gem, Anna Maria Island is now regularly cited in travel publications. In October 2014, Conde Nast Traveler ranked it the 26th-best island in world with some of the "softest, whitest sand on the East Coast" and, most recently, TripAdvisor named it one of "30 rising vacation rental destinations in 2015."

Change crept up on Harrison in his home on 11th Street South. The faces in other houses on the short, narrow street went from familiar to a revolving door of tourists.

Harrison recently heard whispers a new weekly rental may make its way onto his street.

"We can't change what's already happened, but maybe we can be salvage what little bit's left," he said, "and that's what I want to do."

The early days

Harrison moved into his then two-story home on 11th Street South when he was 30 years old. It was a small, tidy street with much older residents and only one rental.

The first neighbor Harrison met was retired performer Frances Colwell, who died May 26. She was 97.

Colwell approached the bashful Harrison and, after introducing herself, grabbed his hand and brought him to other residents up and down the street. Harrison said that's how he met his neighbors so quickly -- it would have taken him years otherwise.

"At 30 years old, you called old people 'old fuddy duddies.' After being out here about three months, I found out these were some of the most interesting people I'd ever met."

Women made pies and cakes for him. He would fix things for them and help them with yard work.

"Everybody just helped out," he said. "I knew everybody and we had a neighborhood and we actually talked to each other."

Neighbors would pile food on someone in sickness and ask how they can help, Harrison recalled.

Through the years, people have left 11th Street South. Harrison said they've either died or grew old enough they had to return home to live with relatives.

Most were Harrison's age now, he said, and they taught him a lot. He and his old neighbors grew close and would often pay each other visits.

"I miss that," he said. "That doesn't happen a lot anymore."

Harrison's wife wasn't in his life yet during his early days in Bradenton Beach. Von Ahnen moved in with him 18 years ago.

"I miss the neighborhood, too," said the 66-year-old retired speech language pathologist as she sat on their balcony. "That's my biggest concern."

Taking action

On June 4, Harrison stood before the Bradenton Beach Commission. Weekly rentals were on his mind.

"I was trying to get them to give me a straight answer of when are you going to do anything about the weekly rentals?" he said, "The city has the power to pass some rules ... but they've been dragging their feet for years."

Before he was elected mayor of Bradenton Beach in a May 19 recall election, former Bradenton Beach Vice Mayor Jack Clarke said during a candidate forum the proliferation of houses-turned-vacation rentals in residential neighborhoods would be one of his top priorities.

Harrison, who said the only residents left on 11th Street South are him, his wife, and those in two other houses, is now trying to mobilize other locals to push the city for legislation on vacation rentals.

"When people go on vacation, I know you're going there to have a good time but it's like there are no limits. That's it," he said. "You don't consider where you're at."

Harrison said he's a prisoner in his own home. What once was a 15-minute drive on the island now takes more than two hours. As a season-ticket holder at The Island Players in Anna Maria, Harrison has difficulty finding a parking space in the community theater lot because they're often taken by beachgoers.

Noise issue

Von Ahnen, who does not want to leave Bradenton Beach, said she can grow accustomed to the noise in their neighborhood -- but she knows her husband hates it. At 11 p.m. every night, they shutter their windows and play relaxing, background music to block out loud chatter from people outside.

"It's like a dripping faucet," she said with a laugh. "You just keep waiting for the next laugh."

It's one way to cope.

"For me, it's the sense of neighborhood. There's nobody to borrow a cup of sugar from," Von Ahnen said about the island's transformation. "You just don't know anybody."

Maintaining peace

Harrison and Von Ahnen wake up early in the morning and walk down the street toward Coquina Beach.

"I enjoy being near the beach," said Harrison. "We get up very early in the morning and go for a walk along the beach and hardly see anyone."

During tourist season, Harrison said Coquina Beach looks like the French Riviera with hundreds of umbrellas all over the place.

Despite this, Von Ahnen said living by the beach is a blessing.

"I love the water and I love swimming and I love the warm weather," she said, "so this is perfect for me."

For Harrison, the biggest change is going from small and quaint to big and commercial. If he had never been to Anna Maria Island and visited it now for the first time, Harrison said he wouldn't want to live here.

That's why he built his backyard haven -- his own Hundred Acre Woods.

"When things get to me," he said, "I just come back here and watch the fountain and meditate."

Amaris Castillo, law enforcement/island reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7051. Follow her on Twitter@AmarisCastillo.