The overarching recommendation from the Urban Land Institute study of Anna Maria Island comes with little surprise and welcome advice: unite. The island's three cities should indeed adopt a common strategy to collectively address the pressing issues that consume island politics, both in short- and long-range plans. At the same time, the cities of Bradenton Beach, Holmes Beach and Anna Maria should also focus on their unique concerns.
The final results of the February ULI study of the island came out this month, and the mayors of all three cities -- Dan Murphy in Anna Maria, Holmes Beach's Bob Johnson and Jack Clarke of Bradenton Beach -- are already working together. Their July 29 letter to Manatee County Administrator Ed Hunzeker expressed a simple request about one of the island's largest issues: traffic and parking.
The cities only seek "insight and understanding" of both Manatee County and Bradenton plans for channeling growth as housing development rebounds. In their letter, the mayors ask for input into "how these plans may serve to lighten the impact on our island environment." This perfectly reasonable request should be granted since Anna Maria Island remains the region's top tourist and lifestyle attraction.
The ULI report cites the island's "strong concern" that the county commission holds "insufficient regard for the impacts of the very significant development throughout the county" and especially southwest Bradenton. The massive Lake Flores project, a 1,300-acre mixed-use community, received Manatee County commission approval this month.
The impact on Anna Maria Island from this nearby project will indeed be significant with increased traffic as well as the economic benefits to businesses.
But commissioners asked the developers whether they would consider installing a parking lot so a bus could transport people to the island and reduce traffic. That idea was well received, bringing hope to a public-private partnership in alleviating island congestion.
Traffic and parking
On peak beach days, the 1,600 parking spaces at Coquina Beach and the 400 at Manatee Public Beach can fill, especially at Manatee, where the spillover into neighborhoods presents problems.
The transportation challenges are enormous since traffic capacity is restricted by the few bridges and two-lane island roads, which now often function at or near capacity. AMI cannot "receive more cars without stress, loss of character" and that is indeed the fear arising out of county development approvals without island input.
As such, the ULI suggests a free, convenient way for county residents to access the beaches. Since that points to residents in mainland cities and the county, those governments should work together with islanders to come up with a solution -- including the ULI's support for free bus service from the mainland and free remote parking. The organization also recommends charging for premium beach parking, though the county controls the Coquina and Manatee Public lots and has rejected that idea.
AMI should install signs on residential streets to explicitly state parking rules, a common-sense idea that would help prevent visitor violations that bedevil residents.
In recommending the island ensure safe and easy transportation options exist, the ULI notes the free trolley navigating main roads and the popular use of golf carts among residents and renters. The report advocates additional bicycle facilities and improvements to existing bicycle and pedestrian routes with wayfaring maps to guide visitors. Such maps are common elsewhere.
Rise of 'mini-hotels'
Another highly politicized issue is the escalation of housing prices, the subsequent population loss and the trend toward the demolition of older homes and construction of larger homes intended for weekly rentals. This intensity of use in residential neighborhoods alarmed residents and community leaders, catching them unprepared.
But the cities hope to gain some control over this via construction and parking ordinances as well as the enforcement of noise restrictions. Holmes Beach is further along in this process, but all the cities are being cautious not to over-regulate public lodging establishments since the state limits home rule on this.
Responsible rental agencies are also helping ease the situation raising awareness about various issues to vacationers.
Striking a balance
As the ULI report states, the island cities "are very concerned about maintaining and enhancing their family friendly 'Old Florida' lifestyle and achieving the appropriate balance between residents, visitors and businesses given the ... pressures." That balance is pivotal to maintaining both the island's and mainland's economy.
In the past, some islanders wanted to restrict visitation to reduce congestion and parking issues, but many realize this is not practical in a country that values freedom above all else.
The ULI addresses this by recommending the island pursue policies that encourage more full- and part-time residents while not limiting visitors.
The report's closing thoughts put this point simply: "You need visitors; they need you." That is followed by this: "Harness the market to meet your goals."
The protection of AMI's environment is a high priority, especially nesting sea turtles, local and migrating seabirds, manatees, dolphins and other aquatic life. Here again, the report a balance of economic development and conservation while building on current environmental efforts to be a model of sustainability and resilience.
Simple things like sand walkways along Pine Avenue in Anna Maria allow rainwater to soak into the ground while concrete sidewalks would create runoff and drainage issues.
Pine Avenue's community "edible" gardens, native landscaping and Historic Green Village solar panels, earth cooling and other environmentally friendly features put Anna Maria in a green spotlight.
The Urban Land Institute, a nonprofit education and research organization, holds almost 80 years of experience in encouraging high standards of land-use planning, growth and development.
The institute has earned high marks for its work over the years, and the AMI report reflects the depth of its research and interviews with dozens of community leaders and residents.
The organization's report and other findings -- which can be found at www.amiuli.com -- contain a broad range of recommendations and information on numerous other issues. We hope this will be a springboard into a brighter future for a treasured piece of paradise.