To bare or not to bare? And if so, where? Those are the questions facing Monroe County government and possibly the city of Key West.
County attorneys last month began researching the idea of creating a clothing-optional beach, after a group of naturists made the request for a nude beach in Key West.
The subject came up during a discussion of the revitalization of Higgs Beach. Political gadfly Sloan Bashinsky, who has announced his candidacy for Key West mayor, proffered the idea of establishing a nude beach on the small strip of sand between the West Martello and the ocean, and the County Commission agreed it was worth pursuing.
While a majority of the commission agrees a nude beach could be good for tourism, allowing it at Higgs Beach might be a problem, as it would be difficult to shield naked sunbathers and swimmers from children at the neighboring Astro City Park and pedestrians on the White Street Pier.
Richard Mason, president of the naturist group South Florida Free Beaches, will meet County Commissioner Heather Carruthers on Wednesday to discuss possible locations for the beach.
The creation of a nude beach has become an issue in recent years as Key West clothing-optional resorts have been converted into more upscale hotels and resorts. Most recently, the popular Atlantic Shores Resort, with a clothing-optional pool bar, was leveled to make way for new, fancier units for the Southernmost Hotel collection. The neighboring Southernmost House, which allowed topless sunbathing on its patio, recently closed to the general public. Several years ago, the aging Truman Motel, which was clothing optional, was demolished.
There are still a few places on the island where people can shed their clothes and soak up some sun, but none of them are free or on a public beach. The Garden of Eden on Duval Street is clothing optional, but that is a rooftop bar with no pool, which makes it more of night spot than a summer tanning mecca. Guests at the Banana Bay Resort and Pier House Resort Caribbean Spa can be topless, but the facilities are restricted to guests.
Boca Chica Beach abutting Naval Air Station Key West has become the de facto nude beach in the Lower Keys, as it is secluded and rarely patrolled by sheriff's deputies. However, naturists consider it seedy.
Key West naturist Tracy Leigh chooses not to go Boca Chica, as the beach has no bathrooms or facilities and is not well maintained. The beach has gained a reputation as a cruising area for gay men looking to have casual sex. Leigh is lobbying for a safe beach she can go to with her children and grandchildren.
"Most of the places do not provide for a family and there is no benefit to the community," said Leigh, who added that South Florida Free Beaches raises money for local charities such as AIDS Help, and that clothing-optional beaches provide revenue to municipalities through parking fees.
Leigh and other Keys naturists want the city to establish a clothing-optional area at the end of Smathers Beach, across the street from the Key West International Airport. The county could make money from charging for parking on the county property across the street and the city could make money through contracts with vendors who would rent chairs or sell food and other wares.
Haulover Beach in Miami-Dade County, which is clothing optional, attracts 1.3 million visitors a year, roughly 7,000 to 8,500 beach-goers a day on busy weekends, the highest of any South Florida beach, according to South Florida Free Beaches. More than 60 percent of the visitors are tourists.
Haulover Beach generates the most parking revenue of all Miami-Dade County's 255 parks, with $1.3 million a year, the group said. On busy weekends, the county offers shuttle buses from nearby parking lots, said Leigh, who travels regularly to Haulover Beach.
Any location within Key West city limits would have to be approved by the Key West City Commission, said Carruthers, who has questioned whether Higgs Beach is the proper location for a clothing-optional beach. The county owns and maintains Higgs Beach, but it is located within city limits.
City Commissioner Teri Johnston, who represents the neighborhood around Higgs Beach, is open to the idea of a nude beach, but she also questioned Higgs Beach as a location. She said she would like to see it at a more secluded place. She agreed that Smathers Beach would be more appropriate if the proper fencing and shrubbery could be installed.
"I think the idea has merit, but we respect everyone's rights in town, the right to nude sunbathe and the right not to see it if you don't want to," Johnston said. "The problem is, the city of Key West is very confined. ... I welcome the opportunity to explore this."
It is not uncommon to see Europeans and more liberal people sunbathing topless at Key West's public beaches, Johnston said.
City Mayor Morgan McPherson does not think a clothing-optional beach would be appropriate for Key West.
"This isn't Europe. This is Key West," McPherson said. "My biggest concern is that Astro Park is the only real park for kids on the island. I don't think it would be appropriate to have a nude beach across the street from it. There is nowhere on the island that is real conducive to a clothing-optional beach. There is no place that has that kind of privacy."