Town of Vail Community Development Director George Ruther has recently returned from participating in a week long planning panel sponsored by the Urban Land Institute. The eight-person panel was tasked with assessing challenges and providing recommendations to officials and townspeople representing the three communities on Anna Maria Island, a barrier island in the Gulf of Mexico off the west coast of Florida.
The Urban Land Institute is a professional organization providing leadership in the responsible use of land and in creating and sustaining thriving communities. In addition to Ruther, the advisory panel included other land use planning experts as well as real estate development professionals from across the country. Their work included more than 230 community member interviews and nearly 80 hours of panel work in formulating a series of recommendations to assist the three communities on the Island - Bradenton Beach, Holmes Beach and the City of Anna Maria.
Anna Maria Island is facing the same community issues as Vail and other resort communities according to Ruther. Anna Maria Island is approximately seven miles in length by a half- mile wide and is home to approximately 8,000 residents and recently voted one of the best destination beach locations in Florida. The land area of the Island is more than 95 percent built out. As popularity of the Island has increased so have traffic volumes, redevelopment pressures and the value of real estate. As a result, lack of guest parking and traffic congestion has prevailed. The old historic beach homes that once dominated the Island landscape are rapidly being demolished to build larger vacation homes locally referred to as mini-hotels. Increasing property values and loss of quality of life and community are causing long time residents to leave the Island resulting in a 21 percent decline in year-round population. As the year-round population is displaced, enrollment in the Island's only elementary school is rapidly reaching the point where more students are bused onto the Island than actually live on the Island, causing the school district to considering relocating the school to the mainland.
Ruther says he was amazed at the similarities between Anna Maria Island and Vail. Each is about the same size and shape geographically and both are completely built out. Anna Maria Island is surrounded by water while Vail is surrounded by USFS property and neither has boundary growth opportunities. Vehicle access to the Island is restricted by two bridges; access to Vail is impacted by Vail Pass and Dowd Junction. “Each community has their beloved Bridge Street and faces the challenge of protecting the character of the community,” says Ruther.
At the end of the week long panel process, Ruther and the ULI experts made the following recommendations to the communities:
- The three island communities must work together and increase collaboration on island-wide issues......speak with one voice when communicating with State, County and Tourism officials.
- Where practical, the communities need to share certain municipal services and seek efficiencies in the delivery of municipal services.
- Actively pursue an Island-wide branding and marketing campaign aimed at family oriented destination guests.
- Implement a paid parking program and expand and improve the free public transportation options for island guests and residents....."free parking is not a right."
- Promote a car-free island vacation.
- Redevelopment is a fact of island life......create areas for preservation and areas for change.
- Create redevelopment master plans for the commercial areas in Holmes Beach and Bradenton Beach.
- Adopt employee housing regulations and incentives as a way to reduce transportation costs and ensure affordability for island residents.
- Create a Neighborhood Services Department to promote code compliance with adopted land use and public nuisance regulations.
- Explore the options of increasing the terms of the Mayor and Commission members and/or the possibility of creating a Manager/Commission form of municipal government
The panel presented its recommendations before an audience of more than 150 persons. A final report will be prepared and provided to the three communities within 60 days. It is now up to the three communities to decide what's next.
“Without a doubt, this was the most professionally rewarding opportunity I've experienced outside of my work in Vail,” said Ruther. “I was proud to be selected as the only public sector planner to serve on this panel and my knowledge and experience with a resort community like Vail made all the difference.”