Hillsborough County cites Beer Can Island for code violations

The property has no zoning designation, so code enforcement sent a violation notice to the Tampa Bay island's owners over changes.

The floating tiki bar is visible in this November 2018 photo of Beer Can Island. [Bronte Wittpenn | Florida Beach Insider photo]
The floating tiki bar is visible in this November 2018 photo of Beer Can Island. [Bronte Wittpenn | Florida Beach Insider photo]

The party might be over at Pine Key, the popular boating and camping destination better known by locals as Beer Can Island.

It was a year ago that four friends purchased the island located between Apollo Beach and MacDill Air Force Base.

Since then, they have implemented rules for visitors, installed portable toilets and trash cans, hosted concerts on a small stage, added investors and, at the beach's edge, anchored what they label as floating structures.

All of this, they say, follows government guidelines.

Hillsborough County Code Enforcement states otherwise.

After visiting the island because of a county resident's complaint, Code Enforcement deemed that “no activity is permitted,” since the property has no zoning designation, according to a notice of violation sent to the owners.

"Entertainment facilities, structures and events are not allowed," reads the report. "Remove all unpermitted structures and cease all events."

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The island's owners have until the end of the month to comply. If they don't, they could face daily fines of $1,000 for each new violation and up to $5,000 for repeat violations.

The owners remain confident they are doing nothing wrong. For now, they aren’t making changes. Instead, they want to talk with the county to find middle ground.

"We want to be in compliance," said Cole Weaver, one of the owners.

Code Enforcement is willing to work with the owners, but it is unclear how they can maintain their current operation without first getting the island zoned.

There are a number of structures on dry ground, such as the Port-O-Lets and a stage, said Hillsborough County's director of Code Enforcement Ron Spiller.

"They are clearly there,” Spiller said, because the island "operates as a business." Without zoning, "it cannot operate as a business or be associated with a business."

Weaver, Russell Loomis, James Wester and John Gadd purchased the island a year ago for $63,650 from a marina that used it as a deposit sight for dredged soil.

The 11-acre island, with sandy beaches surrounding a thickly-vegetated interior, has no roads, drinking water or electricity. It was ignored by the former owner for decades, and campers and partiers used it at will and with little regard for its cleanliness. Trash littered the island. Bushes doubled as toilets.

"It was neglected," said Mark Johnson, a Beer Can Island investor. "We have bettered it. We have made it friendlier, brought some honorable behaviors and structure to the island, and along the way we have researched everything we could to follow the rules."

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From the start, the owners have said they plan to go through the proper channels to get the necessary zoning to fulfill their plans to turn the island into a camping resort, a concert venue, a place for corporate team-building events, or a combination of the three. Meanwhile, they contend their current use does not violate code regulations.

Lacking zoning, they say, means they cannot erect permanent structures. They claim everything is temporary, included a tennis court-sized tiki bar barge that is only aground for part of the day as the tide ebbs and flows.

"We are always looking at how to deal with this space that we operate in," investor Johnson said. "It is a very gray area where Beer Can Island operates. We are not trying to build an adversarial relationship with the county or the city or any entity. We want to work to find clarity."

There was no gray area for code enforcement director Spiller.

"If there is no zoning then nothing is appropriate," he said.

Even if the owners removed the Port-O-Lets, trash cans and stage, and anchored the barge a mile off the property, Code Enforcement might still find them not in compliance if a business relationship existed between the island and the tiki bar.

"Once everything else is gone we can then go back and look at the barge. Clearly right now, the island is supporting a commercial business that is going on," Spiller said. "If they come into compliance at any time, the case is closed."

This article was originally published in the Tampa Bay Times on Dec. 6, 2018.

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Paul Guzzo is a reporter for the Tampa Bay Times.