Commissioner Detert notes similar issues on Manasota Key
Over the past several months, residents on Siesta Key have expressed concerns about more signage going up on the beach in an effort to keep the public off of private property.
The Gulf & Bay Club was one of the more recent complexes to erect such warnings about the part of the shoreline that belongs to its homeowners.
As county commissioners through the years have pointed out, the “wet beach,” below the Mean High Water Line, is considered to be open to everyone. However, landward of that line is considered private beach. The latter understanding was underscored by a bill the Florida Legislature passed in 2018, which then-Gov. Rick Scott signed.
House Bill 631 blocked “local governments from adopting ordinances to allow continued public entry to privately owned beaches even when property owners may want to block off their land,” the Tampa Bay Times reported on April 5, 2018. The Times added that state officials estimated at the time that about 60% of Florida’s beach property is in private ownership, and that ownership extends to the wet sand. Yet, as the Times noted, “In many areas where beaches are privately owned, tourists and even local residents frequently wander over and set up their chairs, collect sea shells and build sand castles.”
The law does not affect publicly owned beaches, Florida Politics pointed out.
During the March 23 County Commission meeting, Commissioner Christian Ziegler, who represents the northern part of Siesta, raised the public beach/private beach topic. “We’ve been getting a lot of emails,” he said, from people pointing out that more signs are going up to warn the public away from the beach in front of houses, as well.
“And other barriers” have been cited, he noted.
“One thing that might help,” Ziegler continued, would be a staff report that explains “specifically what’s allowed and what is not allowed” on the beaches, along with options for addressing public complaints.
He hoped his colleagues would support that request, he said.
Referring to Siesta Key, he added, “I think [the situation is] something that’s really starting to boil over a little bit over there.”
Ziegler noted that Chair Alan Maio represented the entire island before the Single-Member Districts method of electing commissioners went into effect for the 2020 General Election, so Maio might have more insights on the topic.
“My 18 cents’ worth is that’s a great idea,” Maio responded, referring to the request for what the commissioners and administrative staff refer to as a “board assignment.”
The Office of the County Attorney needs to participate in the research, as well, Maio continued. “There’s a lot of legalities involved here, along with [the expertise] of Mr. Lewis’ very able staff.”
Maio was referring to County Administrator Jonathan Lewis.
Then Commissioner Nancy Detert noted that she has been getting complaints about Manasota Key situations that have been similar to those on Siesta. Referring to the problems on Siesta, she added, “That’s a circus.”
Signs that have been erected on Manasota Key warn people not to walk on certain parts of the beach, Detert pointed out, and some people believe the signs, even if the warnings are not accurate.
“It really should be a board assignment,” she concurred with Ziegler in regard to staff researching the issues. “I think we need to know where people can legally walk and [not walk].”
Moreover, Detert continued, enforcement actions should be taken in situations where property owners have acted illegally.
She has heard from Manasota Key residents about a misconception that if a homeowner is not contributing to the beach renourishment that the county collaborated on last year with Charlotte County, then no one can walk across that homeowner’s portion of the beach, Detert said. (Property owners on Manasota Key in what county Environmental Protection staff began calling the “gap area” elected not to get new sand placed in front of their homes, because they said their beach was wide enough. However, the commissioners did agree that those “gap owners” should be assessed for a share of the expense of the project, along with property owners who benefited from the new sand in front of their houses.)
“We’re getting down to the question of who owns the beach,” Detert told her colleagues, “and I think we need clarification on that.”
Then Maio said that while he expected Sheriff Kurt Hoffman would not be happy with Maio’s including the Sheriff’s Office in the discussion, deputies on Siesta “are in a tough spot when it gets tense and emotional. They’re called out there, and we almost have to arm our sheriff’s deputies with surveyors …”
Ziegler also agreed with the suggestion for County Administrator Lewis to contact the Sheriff’s Office during the preparation of the board report. Ziegler said he felt Hoffman would welcome the discussion.
“It does get confusing,” Ziegler said of the private versus public beach issue, and Sheriff’s Office personnel need to know how they should respond during disputes.
After Maio asked whether he had consensus for the board assignment, he looked left and right and then told Lewis, “Everyone agrees.”