All over Florida, people are arguing over whether a new law blocks the public from walking across a private beach. Meanwhile, in the tiny but affluent Pinellas town of Belleair Shore, the question of beach access has sparked a somewhat different dispute.
Instead of just humans, some Belleair Shore residents want to give sea turtles the boot too.
Town Commission members are complaining about spotting marked sea turtles nests on their beachfront land — nests that they said had all been put there, without permission, by the Clearwater Marine Aquarium.
"They relocated 400 eggs onto private property and didn’t tell us," Deputy Mayor Deborah Roseman said in an interview this week. "We learned about it by going out and seeing all these roped off areas on private property."
Roseman said she spotted six nests on her property, while Commissioner Steve Blum said he spotted one that had been relocated to his waterfront land by the aquarium and its volunteers.
But David Yates, the CEO of the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, suggested the two commissioners may want to check their property deeds — and also their math.
Before moving any nests to Belleair Shore, he said, his turtle team reviewed county property records to ensure they were on public land.
"We’re not trying to violate someone’s property rights," Yates said.
And not all those nests are ones that were relocated from another beach area, he said.
"That one nest behind Commissioner Blum’s property, that’s a natural nest," Yates said. As for what’s near Roseman’s home, he said, "there are eight nests out there. Three of them were relocated, but the other five were not. They’re natural nests."
Despite Yates’ assurances, Roseman insists that the turtles are trespassing — at least according to the way Belleair Shore measures the property boundaries.
Belleair Shore prides itself on marching to its own syncopated snare drum. While other beach towns beg for state and federal help in rebuilding their beaches after a storm, Belleair Shore has consistently rejected any beach renourishment projects.
The reason: A rebuilt beach is, by law, a public beach. People in Belleair Shore — a spaghetti-thin strip of incorporated land where the median income is $188,750 and the median property value is $2 million — do not wish to share their slice of paradise with the hoi polloi.
Yet the lack of any beach renourishment is what makes Belleair Shore the perfect spot for relocating nests, Yates said.
On dark nights from May through October, thousands of female sea turtles — all from species listed as threatened or endangered — swim up to Florida’s beaches, climb up to a dry spot, dig a hole and lay scores of golf-ball-sized eggs. Then they cover up the hole, drag themselves back into the surf and swim away.
All over the state, trained volunteers go out every morning just before sunrise to look for the drag marks, then post markers around the nests so no one disturbs them before the eggs hatch. When there’s a potential problem with a nest site, they will carefully dig up the eggs and move them.
The Clearwater crew, working under a permit from the state wildlife commission, has been moving turtle nests out of the way of sand-moving machinery on nearby Belleair Beach to keep them from being run over or otherwise disturbed. That’s why they’re relocating them to Belleair Shore, to make sure the little hatchlings have a safe route back to the water once they emerge.
Yates said this is the first time anyone’s objected in the 30 years the aquarium has been marking and occasionally relocating sea turtle nests.
"Most people enjoy having these nests in their area and watching them hatch," he said.
He chalked it up to the ongoing controversy over public beach access that erupted earlier this year. The Legislature passed a law favoring private owners over the public, and Gov. Rick Scott signed it, despite letters and emails to his office running 8-1 in favor of a veto.
The new law blocks 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. Instead, any city or county that wants to do that has to get a judge’s approval first by suing the private landowners.
The law sparked an angry public backlash. Scott, who owns a waterfront mansion in Naples, backpedaled and signed an executive order that asked local governments not to enforce it.
Scott’s flip-flop has become an issue in his race to replace U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson. Last month, Nelson stood next to a "No Trespassing" sign on a Panhandle beach and called for Scott to convene a special session to fix the law. Scott has declined.
Belleair Shore’s turtle tiff is a unique twist on the overall beach access battle. But this isn’t the first time the tiny beach town — population 114 — has gotten embroiled in a big dispute.
In 1995, then-Mayor Bob Clayton insisted two women who didn’t own property in the town be ticketed for drinking coffee on Belleair Shore’s beach while they watched the sunrise. The resulting uproar made national news headlines, many involving the pun "brew-ha-ha."
A year later, Clayton flashed a gold-plated badge and demanded that two beach visitors leave.
"I am the police," Clayton shouted, paraphrasing the catchphrase of Sylvester Stallone in the movie Judge Dredd as the confrontation turned physical. Clayton was convicted of battery and criminal mischief. Later, his fellow commissioners forced his resignation.
Then, in 1998, the town somehow wound up with two mayors, each accusing the other of being a fraud. A judge settled that one, ruling for the mayor who didn’t actually live in Belleair Shore, but in neighboring Belleair Beach. The loser tried running again, but lost to a candidate whose slogan was "Swimsuits Not Lawsuits."
Belleair Shore’s town commissioners spent some time grousing about the turtle nest situation at their last meeting in July. At their next one, they may discuss passing an ordinance or at least firing off an indignant letter, the deputy mayor said.
But if they wait a little while — say, until after the hatchlings dig their way out of the sand and race for the surf — the dispute could resolve itself naturally.
"In less than 60 days from now," Yates said, "this is going to be over."
Senior news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Craig Pittman at [email protected] Follow @craigtimes.