‘Private’ beach rights dispute arises again on Siesta Key

The Siesta Key Public Beach is dotted by umbrellas on July 3. Photo by Rachel Hackney

A dispute over beach property rights on Siesta Key has resurfaced, Sarasota County Commissioner Nora Patterson told members of the Siesta Key Village Association this week.

About two years ago, Patterson reminded the 20 members present for the July 3 meeting, a resident living at Point of Rocks put up barricades, to prevent people from crossing what the resident viewed as private property. Similar issues had arisen at Shell Beach in years past, she added.

“Well, it’s happening all over again,” Patterson said, adding that she hoped a compromise could be reached among the parties involved, just as one was the last time the issue arose.

Dave Magee, owner of The UPS Store on Beach Road and president of Crescent Tower on Crescent Beach, said actions by management of the Hyatt Siesta Key Beach, Sea Club V and the Siesta Sands Beach Resort — also on Crescent Beach — had resulted in his complex having to post a security guard to make sure guests at Crescent Towers could find space to enjoy the beach.

For the past two to three years, Magee said, representatives of other complexes on Crescent Beach had blocked the public from using the dry sand — upland of what is considered public beach — around those complexes.

Florida law recognizes the mean high water line as the boundary between public trust land and private property.

The actions of those complexes, Magee added, “pushes 100% of the people who used to be spread out [on Crescent Beach] to our complex. Absolutely none of our paying customers has access to the beach anymore. Zero.”

The situation had resulted in increasing complaints from guests at his complex, Magee said. “So this is the first time we’ve put [a security guard] out there. If they’re not paying guests, they’re not going to be allowed on our beach at this point. But we have absolutely no option, because we are losing guests like crazy.”

Magee said Crescent Towers had consulted an attorney, who had advised the action. The attorney had said that if the complex didn’t take such an initiative, it could end up losing any use of the beach in the future.

In a 1974 case, the Florida Supreme Court “recognized the doctrine of custom as a means by which the public can establish rights to utilize the dry sand areas of Florida beaches for traditional recreational uses,” according to a 1999 article by S. Brent Spain in the Journal of Land Use & Environmental Law.

A check of the Sarasota County website showed a July 2 email sent to county staff and a phone call reported to Patterson the same day from a Midnight Pass Road resident. Those communications had raised the question of what was considered “public beach.”

One email included a flyer provided to members of Association Sarasota by the Sea.

The flyer points out that the Crescent Towers security guard would be stationed on the beach from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. beginning June 30. It adds, “Crescent Towers has graciously given Association Sarasota by the Sea 40 feet north of our drainage area for our owners and guests to use. Please follow the directions of the security guard when he shows you the area to sunbathe and enjoy the beach. Your guests can still use the wet sand area to walk the beach and sit close to the water. That area is for public use.”

Magee said what finally spurred the Crescent Towers action was an incident about a week before the SKVA meeting, when 12 tents were lined up on the beach in front of his complex “My guests couldn’t even see the water,” he said. “None of ’em [using the tents] was our customers. Not a one.”

Deputy Matt Binkley of the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office said deputies had received complaints, too, about people being run off the Hyatt property.

The previous day, he added, “I couldn’t go on the Hyatt property to the water line because [Hyatt] beach chairs were at the water line.”

“That’s what’s got to stop,” Patterson said.

Binkley said deputies had talked with the Hyatt security guards. However, he said, “It was more of an informational contact. … It’s an issue that’s going to have to work itself out.”

Magee said Crescent Towers did not allow its guests to put chairs within 150 feet of the Gulf of Mexico.

“I bet you there’s not a clear 100 feet from the water,” Patterson told him, “and if there is, God bless you.”

“There’s more than 100 feet,” Magee said. “I think there’s 200 feet.”

Another SKVA member confirmed Magee’s assertion.

SKVA member Troy Syprett, co-owner of the Daiquiri Deck Raw Bar, reiterated that Magee was talking about problems in the area above the high-tide line. “You’ve got all these people crammed up right in front of [Crescent Towers] on the white sand,” Syprett added.

The situation had been exacerbated by Tropical Storm Debby, Magee said. “The water level is still high.”

However, Patterson responded, “The water level is down. I can tell that on my dock.” [Patterson lives on the north part of Siesta Key.]

Magee maintained that the tide still was higher on the south end of the island.

“I think that’s because you’ve lost a lot of beach,” Patterson said, “but I think it will come back.”

“Two or three years ago,” Patterson said, “the situation was such … that people couldn’t walk by all the rental kayaks and chairs from the upland complexes [on Crescent Beach], and basically the beach area was being completely privatized.”

After intervention by county officials, a compromise remedied the situation, she said. If that compromise did not continue, Patterson told Magee, “what will happen is when your guests want to walk down the beach, somebody’s going to run them off.”

“Nobody’s doing anything down by the beach, down by the shoreline,” Magee responded.

Patterson agreed that some of the dry-sand area had to be available to people on the beach who were not staying in the surrounding condominium complexes, “or basically, we’re starting a war.”

She added, “It does require everybody’s cooperation, and that includes the Hyatt.”

Patterson said she had forwarded the email about the situation to the Hyatt “and asked that they consider getting people together to come up with a solution.”

“It actually is an issue that’s bad for tourism on the beach,” Patterson said, adding that the manager of the Hyatt, Edward Braunlich, is a member of the county’s Tourist Development Council. “He’s a good person to help bring some peace to the discussion.”

According to the county website, Braunlich was appointed to a four-year term on the TDC in March 2011.

Magee told Patterson, “I’ve also talked to him about this issue. He had no desire to change it.”

Patterson responded, “OK, we’ll see. I can only try.”