MADEIRA BEACH — Beachgoers likely won’t have to dodge electric bikes on the sand. The flashing yellow safety beacons at crosswalks aren’t going anywhere. A vacation-rental effort that some feared would turn quiet beach neighborhoods into “Jersey Shore” episodes every spring break has evaporated.
And if Gov. Ron DeSantis keeps Gulf beach municipalities in his good graces when he parses the $101 billion state budget later this summer with his veto pen, the barrier island stands to reap more than $5 million in infrastructure improvements.
“The beaches did very well — in the budget, especially,” said state Sen. Jeff Brandes, a Republican from St. Petersburg who briefed members of the Tampa Bay Beaches Chamber of Commerce and guests on the 2021 legislative session last week. “Hopefully, Gov. DeSantis looks favorably on Pinellas.”
The session that ended April 30 was dominated by hot-button national GOP issues. In a 60-day burst that some political wags dubbed the “Own the Libs” session, the national media focused on Florida, DeSantis’ future political aspirations and the shadow of Donald Trump.
At the governor’s urging, lawmakers passed an “anti-riot” measure targeting violent political protests; placed new regulations on social media platforms; cracked down on mail ballots and the use of drop-boxes for early voting; banned “vaccine passports” and any effort by schools, businesses and government to force people to prove that they have received their COVID shots; and prevented transgender female athletes from competing in girls’ sports.
All Florida politics may not be local, but there were some issues of concern to beach governments that made their way to Tallahassee. Brandes and Republican state Reps. Nick DeCeglie and Linda Chaney, the trio that represents the Gulf beaches in the Capitol, addressed some of them May 13 at a chamber meeting at the Cambria Hotel in Madeira Beach.
With local governments learning they had no standing to ban electric bikes from beaches, the increasingly popular, silent and speedy vehicles have multiplied on the shore — as have accidents.
A bill sponsored by a lawmaker from The Villages, the mega-retirement community in central Florida, dealing with elliptical bikes looked like a ripe opportunity for what Brandes called “a nice little amendment that fit in there.” His amendment was accepted, the bill passed and has been signed by the governor, and beach communities are already preparing ordinances keeping the vehicles off the sand.
Meanwhile, legislation introduced by a South Florida lawmaker would have required the beacons at pedestrian crosswalks to flash red instead of yellow. Local officials’ jaws dropped when they learned the law would have mandated that yellow beacons would have to be disabled; there are more than 80 along Gulf Boulevard alone.
The bill passed the House, but died in the Senate.
Chaney addressed the tension in the Legislature as the family of a young crosswalk accident victim lobbied for the bill.
“We really dodged a bullet on that one,” she said. “It’s got some real emotional pull, but the data really did not support the bill. It was a really delicate dance to get around the emotional issue, when the parents are sitting right in front of you when you’re voting on this.”
Meanwhile, a bill that would have transferred regulation of short-term vacation rentals from local governments to the state also died. DiCeglie called the Gulf beaches “ground zero” for abuses such as homeowners or second-homeowners renting out beach homes for rowdy weekend parties.
“I’m extremely concerned that if we start moving that regulatory response to the state, that there’s not a reasonable way to enforce that and deal with the bad actors,” he said. “It’s just not good public policy.”
A similar measure, usurping local regulation of home-based businesses, did make it through the Legislature. Lawmakers and local lobbyists were less concerned about the measure, however, because language in the bill addressed the number of employees that would be allowed, parking, equipment handling, signage, noise and other concerns.
“There’s language in there, but we’re still not happy with it,” said Madeira Beach Mayor John Hendricks. Mayors are hoping for a gubernatorial veto.
They are also looking to DeSantis to wave through money for several major infrastructure projects along the beach. The governor has line-item veto power and is expected to review the record $101 billion state budget later this summer.
Among the projects approved by the Legislature:
• In St. Pete Beach, a $1.5 million restoration of Gulf Boulevard upon completion of its sanitary sewer project. Rather than simply resurface the roadway, the city wants to consider pedestrian and mobility improvements and hopes to not have to pull funds from projects in residential areas, which also need attention.
• In Madeira Beach, $1.75 million to rebuild the groin system that protects the beach from erosion and has kept the city from requiring sand nourishment.
• Also in Madeira Beach, $549,400 for roadway and drainage improvements to “enhance the tourist experience and improve roadway safety for residents.”
• In Treasure Island, $375,000 for sewer lift station rehabilitation.
There are also road projects worth $1.15 million in Belleair and $109,000 in Pinellas Park in the budget.
Last year, DeSantis vetoed more than $1 billion worth of budget requests as the pandemic set in.
Local mayors were upbeat at a mixer following last week’s session recap, but the issue of legislative overreach still loomed.
“It was an interesting session,” said North Redington Beach Mayor Bill Queen. “There’s still an attack on home rule that we’ve got to get a hold of. We’ve got to let our legislators know that we’re listening to the people down here at the base level. Jefferson said the best government is the government closest to the people. We’re where they start.”