CLEARWATER — The northern stretches of Clearwater Beach are far emptier than the bustling businesses and rows of cabana umbrellas near Pier 60. On a recent afternoon, a huge flock of pelicans bobbing in the surf far outnumbered the handful of beach walkers and a lone couple canoodling on a blanket.
But some beach activists say the narrow beach, which fronts a residential neighborhood that was settled in the 1920s, is in danger of being privatized.
They're meeting with City Council members, hoping to enlist the city's aid in dismantling or at least stopping the spread of roped-off areas of that part of the beach. Three property owners along the 1000 block of El Dorado Avenue have erected ropes and posted "no trespassing" signs over sections of the beach in the last several years — two within the last year, beach activists say.
"I'm curious. Is there a high crime rate that we're not aware of?" said Wendy Hutkin, president of the Clearwater Beach Association.
Roping off the beach mars the neighborly atmosphere of the north beach and threatens tourism, she said.
The City Council should step in, Hutkin says, because Clearwater Beach is fundamental to the economic health of the entire city. The ropes and "no trespassing" signs risk alienating visitors.
"People just don't sit in front of their hotels. They travel up and down the beach. Clearwater wouldn't be Clearwater without its beaches," she said.
Two of the property owners either couldn't be reached or didn't return requests for comment. But a June letter sent by the association to one property owner received a strongly worded reply.
"The beach in this area is not and has never been a public beach," wrote W. Miller, the manager of 1068 ElDorado Avenue LLC. "Private property ownership is one of the cornerstones of our community and country."
The owners of the beach have "exclusive" rights to the beach, while others only have the right to cross at the "water's edge," Miller wrote.
Miller and other representatives of the company couldn't be reached.
Bolstering their case, though, are property records for the three parcels listing their frontage as the "Gulf of Mexico."
One the other hand, a 1925 plat of the Mandalay subdivision, then called "The Isle of the Thousand Palms," shows only one parcel — now the Regatta Beach Club condo tower — with property lines touching the gulf, according to one interpretation.
But that reading depends on what the dotted border along the gulf means. Is it sandy beach? No hints are provided in the plat, which is silent on how far the property lines extend in the area.
City officials say the lack of a "mean high-water line," the line where state law guarantees public access, complicates the issue.
The Department of Environmental Protection determines the line. But no mark has been established for that stretch of Clearwater Beach, creating a legal limbo.
Generally, the state considers wet sand to be open to the public and dry sand to be private, said DEP spokeswoman Dee Ann Miller.
City Attorney Pam Akin and City Manager Bill Horne say the city doesn't own any of the beach where the private areas have sprouted in recent years. With no direct legal interest, city staffers plan to advise Clearwater's elected officials to steer clear of a complicated legal fray likely to end up in the courts, Akin said.
Council member Bill Jonson agrees. "It would be ideal if we could get a judge to decide the issue based on the facts," he said.
Hutkin and other association members want to meet with Mayor George Cretekos and other council members before formally petitioning the council to act, but she said she wonders why the city hasn't already done something. "If we didn't do anything what would happen? Would the city just sit back and let people rope off the beach?" Hutkin said.
There's plenty of public beach to the south and north, wrote the 1068 ElDorado Avenue LLC manager.
"Only one mile north is protected state park. If someone wants more of an urban beach feel, they need only walk … southward," Miller wrote.
Charlie Frago can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4159. You can follow him on Twitter @CharlieFrago.