TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — A privately owned island in Tampa Bay is a subject of debate for Hillsborough County commissioners. The nugget of land, Pine Key, also called Beer Can Island, has been the center of a debate on changing land rights in Hillsborough County, amid recreation and zoning concerns.
Right now, the island is open to the public but privately owned. However, commissioners spent part of a planning commission meeting on March 7 discussing the island’s future, with concerns over safety and boat access.
The report on Pine Key produced ahead of the meeting by county staff said the island’s owners had asked for review to consider what a future land use category for the area would be appropriate, in 2021.
The process since ended up with the Board of County Commissioners designating that the so-called Beer Can Island was unable to fit with “any established future land use category.” Afterward, BOCC moved to create a category for “island-specific” land use, called Island Recreation.
However, the plan submitted to create that text amendment to the county’s Comprehensive Plan failed, with commissioners not voting it through due to what the report calls a lack of information, and concerns over environmental impacts on Pine Key in the future.
Commission members instead directed the owners of the island to file an application for the category to be applied to Pine Key along with a plan for redevelopment of the area in a zoning application.
As of Jan. 19, board members asked for a report on public safety and impacts related to a potential rezoning of Beer Can Island.
Based on information provided to the county commissioners by Hillsborough County Fire Rescue and the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office, the report said business operations on Pine Key would require the ability for service calls by responders. Both agencies are reported to have responded to service calls on the island since it was purchased by its current owner, and that if a business were allowed to work on the island, they expected additional service calls to follow.
To respond to those calls for service, HCSO and HCFR told commissioners that they would need a boat to access the island, and that taking a boat from the Fire Rescue out of service for a call typically takes between 1.5 to three hours. Additionally, the need for a helicopter landing zone was listed, as a necessity to respond to medical support calls when water transport is unsuitable or delayed.
During a Feb. 9 meeting, members of the Tampa Bay Pilots Association “expressed concerns from the maritime industry’s perspective” regarding U.S. Coast Guard regulations and security zone requirements, citing the island’s proximity to shipping routes and dredging contamination risks.
Port Tampa Bay also “expressed concerns over the potential” for a change of shipping schedules, should the island be developed for business use, according to the report.
As far as safety concerns, during the March 13 planning commission meeting, Pine Key was described by analysts as “shrinking” due to erosion and weather in the area that have impacted the structure of the island.
During the meeting, Commissioner Steven Fernandez asked what potential concerns the Florida Department of Environmental Protection had regarding adding structures to Pine Key, referred to by a citizens’ advisory member as “a vulnerable area,” citing its “continual” erosion.
Additionally, the island is also said to be a potential home for wildlife, though currently the opportunity for that to occur has not happened due to being “disrupted.”
The island was roughly nine acres when the proposal first started in 2021. Fernandez said as of a recent analysis, it was now “shrinking,” down from a size of 17 acres in 2005. Fernandez referred to the island as a “dredge island,” saying that currents and wakes from nearby shipping routes were causing the land to shrink.
While the county isn’t decided on how to proceed, residents and fans of Beer Can Island have started a petition to protect its status and opposing the island being shut down.
The petition asks that residents in Tampa Bay call county commissioners to ask them to classify the zone as “island recreation” or a similar category and provides a copy-and-paste plea that can be used to send to officials. The petition says that turning the island into a privately owned nature preserve that can’t earn money poses issues, such as who pays for upkeep and who pays for security and cleanup staff, if the current owners are forced off the land.
“If the current owners are forced off the property, who’s going to protect the island and who’s going to fund it?” the petition asks. It also pushes back on claims by officials, and the planning report, that wakes are creating hazards around the island as they pass, noting that if ships go at a slower speed, it would not do so.