Chief wants to tame 'People's Beach'
By DEBORAH O'NEIL
© St. Petersburg Times,
CLEARWATER -- Two years ago, city officials took control of the "People's Beach" on the Courtney Campbell Parkway in an effort to curb the drinking, brawling and fights.
A gate went up. Closing time was set at 11 p.m. Signs reminded visitors no alcohol was allowed.
But Police Chief Sid Klein says the recreation area on the causeway's south side remains the "Wild West" with sun and sand. Thousands pack the shore on sunny weekends. Shots are fired. People beat each other. Alcohol flows freely. Visitors use bushes for bathrooms.
"It's probably the last unregulated beach in Pinellas County," Klein said. "It's very similar to the Wild West."
In the first five months of 2001, Clearwater police worked 844 calls there, an average of nearly six times a day. In that time officers wrote 405 citations for people with open alcohol and made more than 100 arrests for drug violations, warrants, fighting and brawling, and disorderly conduct.
The problems are draining the department's staffing and change is in order, Klein says.
"We're tying up an entire team of officers during the weekends, particularly in hot summer months," Klein said. "If it remains status quo, it's going to be a continual drain in public safety resources."
With the support of the city's Environmental Advisory Board, Klein is proposing the City Commission develop the area with public restrooms, showers, pet refuse stations and erosion control measures. City officials say they will make a decision in the next three months.
Other ideas include creating an exit at the east end. The beach now has just one entry and exit point. With that, traffic could be routed one-way and parking areas would be designated to minimize erosion along the shore.
Those who frequent the beach say they don't want the changes. Jon "B.J." Bjers, chairman of Save Our Courtney Campbell Causeway Beach, says the efforts are neither needed nor warranted.
"We're not asking for a whole bunch of improvements," Bjers said. "All we want is a port-a-john."
The problems are exaggerated, he said.
"People drink beer out there, yes," Bjers said. "Big deal. There's not a lot of fights out there. Four or five years ago, maybe. Not now. It's so quiet out there."
State and local officials also are discussing erecting a traffic light at the intersection that would regulate cars for both the beach and Clearwater Christian College across the street. About 55,000 cars zip along both sides the highway, according to the Department of Transportation.
"We've seen people wrapped around poles," said college president George Youstra. "The frequency of the accidents is increasing because of the beach traffic."
Before any of these ideas are implemented, the city must decide what it wants the Courtney Campbell beach to be and how much attention it deserves, said City Manager Bill Horne.
The city leases the land from the state, but it is within the city limits. The city does not have money set aside for improvements.
With cars rumbling along the shore and dogs splashing in the surf, the People's Beach is not a beach at all, according to city ordinances. Nor is it a park. Figuring out where, if anywhere at all, it belongs will help determine how it is regulated.
"We're looking at the whole area," Horne said. "I'm struggling with, "What do we have there? What should we do?' It's a hybrid."
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