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Shell Key hangover

As the county shapes an ordinance to protect Shell Key, weekend revelers leave heaps of trash on the beach.


© St. Petersburg Times, published May 16, 2001

[Times files: Maurice Rivenbark]
Shell Key, a 180-acre island in southern Pinellas County, is a popular destination for weekend boaters.
In drafting a plan to protect more than 100 species of seabirds that inhabit Shell Key, state and county officials hoped to create an environment where people could enjoy the island without spoiling it.

The rules are simple: You can camp, you can bring your pets to the island, but stay out of the bird and wildlife habitat in the center of Shell Key.

And finally, take your trash home with you.

More and more, say those who frequent Shell Key or make a living shuttling tourists back and forth to the 180-acre island, the weekend revelers who camp there are leaving behind heaps of trash. Although the county is aware of the problem, Pinellas environmental lands division manager Craig Huegel said, an ordinance to further protect Shell Key is still in the works, and no county staff is dedicated to patrolling its beach.

"The whole concept of our management plan was, and we were assured by everybody and their brother that they would do this, that people would pick up for themselves," Huegel said. "The county has taken kind of a wait-and-see attitude to see whether the public can maintain the property."

The trash left behind at Shell Key isn't just typical beach trash, the cigarette butts and 7-Eleven disposable cups commonly strewn about the sand on public beaches.

Shell Key trash is the type that piles up on a weekend party island, where revelers can camp, grill and, until the county's new ordinance takes effect in a couple of months, consume alcohol.

Dave and Lois Vickland of St. Pete Beach are among a small group of people who make occasional post-weekend trips to Shell Key to help clear out the trash. The trash they found on a recent trip tells a story about the island:

Pieces of a charcoal grill. Burnt-out tiki torches. Used condoms. Socks. Food wrappers, plastic cups, cooking utensils. An abandoned tent, some bales of hay, a musty blanket.

On one trip, Mrs. Vickland found a few colorful party noisemakers.

"Sometimes I pick up a piece of paper and say, 'Oh, this is someone's toilet paper,' " she said.

And, of course, beer bottles, beer cans, a collapsed box that once contained a 12-pack of Miller Genuine Draft.

Huegel said the county plans to make Shell Key more family-friendly, but county legal staff is currently reviewing the ordinance that would put in place such rules as "no alcohol allowed."

"I would really like to see it evolve over time to be more of a nature-based, passive public use," Huegel said. "Where I can take my kids out there because it's a beautiful public place, as opposed to I take them out there because I can't find a babysitter, and I want to have a party."

People have long been attracted to Shell Key, a boomerang-shaped island south of St. Pete Beach and west of Tierra Verde, for its beauty and its freedom. But the county's new management plan, approved last year, acknowledges that preserving the beauty involves limiting some freedoms.

A committee of boaters, environmentalists, nearby residents, county and state staff, and law enforcement developed the management plan.

Alva Sholty, who runs the Shell Key Shuttle from Merry Pier and sits on the board of the St. Petersburg Audubon Society, said those who clamored for continued human access to the island insisted that boaters would pick up after themselves on the island.

"The problem has been the recreational campers go out there and have keg parties, and in the morning they're too sick to clean up," Sholty said. "Tent, sleeping bags, sometimes they just leave them scattered around, end of story. I was so mad when I picked up the last round of trash. I was livid, but I've been living with it for years."

Huegel said the county recognizes the need for trash cleanup at Shell Key but hopes to mobilize the public to help in teams of volunteers. "We don't envision putting up a lot of trash receptacles or running trash barges," Huegel said.

He also believes the trash problem will decline once the new county ordinance goes into effect and users of Shell Key become less inclined to treat the island like their party pad.

Said Sholty, who encourages his patrons on the Shell Key Shuttle to bring back their trash and a piece of someone else's: "It's always been a source of amazement to me that people go out there because it's so pretty, and it's so pristine, and then they leave all their trash on the island. They're defying their own values."

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