Most beachfront tourist destinations aren’t necessarily known for sustainability or being environmentally friendly. If they are, it’s usually because the location is protected wilderness. However, on the Gulf shores of Florida, there is a tiny beach town that seamlessly blends eco-friendly practices while catering to repeat visitors year after year. And you won’t guess which worldwide organization has taken notice.
Anna Maria Island, Florida feels like the type of beach town that you visited when you were a kid. Sure, there’s plenty of things to do, but it’s not overrun with tourist traps or chain restaurants. Instead, it has a homespun feel, where families ride their bikes to the beach, and walking to the neighborhood donut shop is a can’t-miss event on the weekends.
Beyond the small town feel, though, is a serious commitment to the environment, and a passionate desire to thoughtfully look at growth and development in the area – and make sustainable business decisions.
Most visitors to the town that has been named one of the “Top 30 Islands in the World” by Conde Nast Traveler never realize what eco-friendly practices there are behind the scenes in Anna Maria Island. That is, unless they’ve spent any time at Anna Maria Island’s Historic Green Village.
There are only about 100 developments worldwide that can claim to be Plantinum LEED Certified, plus Net Zero Energy. The Historic Green Village happens to be one of the very few of that elite list that also has sandy shores and palm trees close by.
One of the stores in the village is AMI Outfitters, opened by Steve Traves, an outdoor photographer. What makes the Platinum LEED Certification and Net Zero Energy status of the outdoor sporting equipment store so unique, though, is that it was achieved by retro-fitting a 1935 Sears & Roebuck mail-order kit home.
Walk into the compact 1,000 square foot retail space and you might not notice the eco-friendly practices, unless Traves starts pointing them out. Glance up and see a cross-section of the insulation in the roof, with a temperature gauge that shows how cool the attic is even under the hot Florida sun.
Step outside and you’ll find a self-guided tour of every sustainable feature in the Historic Green Village, from computer monitors displaying energy use, an observation platform to see the solar panels, and detailed information about the two geothermal wells.
The Historic Green Village is just one aspect of the eco friendly attitude of the development of Anna Maria Island. Ed Chiles, founder of The Chiles Group which owns three waterfront restaurants including Sandbar Restaurant and Beach House Restaurant on Anna Maria Island, has been among the leaders who are guiding sustainable future development and protecting their historic past.
Wanting to create a beach front destination that wasn’t purely residential, but had just enough of a mix of sustainable development to continue to draw in guests, Chiles promotes eco-friendly design measures such as mixed-used buildings; construction using Integrated Concrete Forms (ICF), which are among the most energy efficient building materials available; and paying close attention to the natural landscape, including using “native pathways” to prevent additional storm run off.
Pine Avenue is the heart of Anna Maria Island, and along the two lane road you’ll find the mixed-use designs, which include green certified buildings that double as vacation homes and boutique spaces. Anna Maria Guest Houses are the vacation home rentals on the second floor of the buildings, crafted with reclaimed wood and energy efficient design, yet offering plenty of space and luxury for families traveling to the beach.
With just a short stroll down the sandy native pathway, you can pop into Poppo’s Tacqueria for a healthy fast-casual meal. The innovative restaurant serves up only organic, sustainable or local foods and drinks. Walk up to the design-it-yourself bar where you can create your own burrito, rice bowl or tacos and wild boar is going to be one of the proteins that are available to choose. It’s a sustainable choice, combating Florida’s growing problem with wild boar.
In the landscaping up and down Pine Avenue, you’ll find raised bed boxes. The Anna Maria Island Community Edible Gardens was created in partnership with Educational Concerns for Hunger Organization (ECHO), a local Florida organization that is providing seeds to third world countries to help them become more self-sustainable in growing their own food.
Among the few dozen organic edible garden boxes that can now be found throughout Anna Maria Island, there are some well-known and some unusual varieties of produce. Moringa, Seminole Pumpkin and Katuk are among the nutrient-rich plants adapted to tropical growing conditions that thrive in the edible gardens. Not sure how to prepare them? No problem. There are QR codes in each box that can be scanned and provide more information on the plants.
The edible boxes up and down Pine Street are there for anyone to pick and harvest a bounty. In fact, step inside a store and the owners will likely provide you with the scissors to cut some spinach leaves, and tell you more about the community food effort.
The sustainability-focused development of Anna Maria Island has combined tourism and environmental protection in such a way that it has even attracted attention from the United Nations, which recently sent representatives to learn about the practices that the island community has taken. Anna Maria Island was asked to be a model for their global initiative on sustainable tourism and could soon be considered a tourism observatory – one of a few communities chosen for that honor. Only 10 currently exist around the world, with no models (to-date) in the United States.
“Anna Maria Island is how a community does responsible development in a model way and emphasizes their intrinsic qualities,” said Chiles. “We are a place that didn’t get discovered early and it is charming and village-like and we don’t have any chains and it’s very authentic. It’s chill here and relaxed. I love what we’ve done for our city.”
Chiles said that now the number one request from new property owners on Anna Maria Island is to be located close to Pine Avenue, where the heart of the sustainable development is located.