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City ponders clipping some wings

Treasure Island officials are worried about the paragliders who skim over and along the popular beaches.

By AMY WIMMER

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 15, 2000


TREASURE ISLAND -- Soaring above sand and surf, with a tiny motor strapped to his back and a colorful parachute keeping him airborne, Jeff Thompson thinks he has found the ultimate sense of freedom.

"I think that's something Americans have in common, that they enjoy freedom," said Thompson, 31, of Carrollwood. "That's what I like about it."

It's a freedom Treasure Island officials aren't convinced is legal, and one they might soon take away.

The ParaStars paragliding club is based on a large vacant parcel in rural Parrish, where members learn, practice and train in relative isolation and obscurity. But occasionally they visit the sand of Treasure Island, where the large expanse of beach is particularly suitable for paragliding.

Members say they try to keep to their activities away from the most popular -- and populated -- sections of Treasure Island's beach. But that hasn't stopped a handful of residents from questioning the paragliders' proximity to beachgoers.

City officials think they might need to protect their earthbound visitors from the flying ones.

"I hate to take anybody's fun away from them, but the fact of the matter is, I just don't know how controllable these things are, how dependable they are," Treasure Island Mayor Leon Atkinson said. "I'm afraid this is something that's not conducive to our beach."

Paragliders fly using a large fan strapped to their backs that is attached to a 32-foot-long parachute. The group is attracted to Treasure Island because its beach is among the widest in Pinellas County.

"It's got a huge beach," said Palm Harbor resident Bob Brodhead, a member of ParaStars. "The beach is enormous, and we need about 100 feet for the takeoff."

Under Federal Aviation Authority guidelines, paragliders cannot be operated in populated areas, including a recreational beach, City Attorney Jim Denhardt said. At a meeting Tuesday, commissioners decided to position local police officers on the beach on weekends to watch for paragliders, and any that are seen will be turned over to the FAA.

If necessary, the city could draft its own ordinance banning the paragliders.

Paragliding hasn't been an issue in Treasure Island since late 1996, when city police cited a paraglider for operating a motor vehicle on the beach. At the time, the city thought about designating space on the beach for paragliders to launch, but the idea fell through when neither side could find a way to secure insurance for the activity.

"That was the stalemate, and that's where it died," Atkinson said.

Brodhead said other coastal cities around Florida have successfully allowed paragliding on popular beaches. The number of people who paraglide minimizes its impact, he said.

"It's very much a niche sport, and there aren't a million people lining up to do it," Brodhead said.

Roseanne Pettit, who owns Sea Horse Cottage & Apartments in Treasure Island, said several paragliders used to stay at her motel before the city cracked down on the sport five years ago. She said she thinks the city should find a way to work with the paragliders, and questions why some residents have complained about them.

"I have people who sit on the beach and complain about the kite man," Pettit said. "You can't please everybody all the time."

Atkinson counters that he has heard beachgoers have nearly been hit by landing paragliders. Still, even the mayor said he can't deny the lure of the sport.

"It looks like it might be fun," Atkinson said. "But I don't know that I want to put what looks like a shop fan on my back and start flying with it. I don't know if I'd be that brave."

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