Caddy's on the Beach claims to control a stretch of sandy Florida shore — property the state generally considers public. Beachgoers at the well-known Sunset Beach restaurant are allowed to drink alcoholic beverages while others a few steps away cannot. Caddy's can stop people from using foul language, carrying coolers or bringing in alcohol. And recently, the restaurant took it one step further. Standing in a line from the water to the restaurant, Caddy's security guards and owner Tony Amico blocked people from walking onto the beach from a nearby party. The incident raises a complex and hotly contested question in Florida: Who owns the beach?
The party grew quickly.
More than 500 people, almost all black, overwhelmed the Lions Club of St. Petersburg event hall in Sunset Beach that was rented out June 12 for a party dubbed the "Super Summer Beach Bash — Pt. 1."
People spilled out onto the beach. Parking was scarce. Smoke from the grill wafted over nearby homes, irritating neighbors' noses. There were reports of fights but no arrests.
Police downplayed it.
"They had a private party," said Treasure Island police Chief Tim Casey. "They got a little boisterous at the end of it. It was a big nothing."
Worried what might happen, police called the Lions Club about 7 p.m. and shut down the party. About two dozen officers and Pinellas sheriff's deputies cleared the building and the beach.
About the same time, Amico and a couple of Caddy's bouncers stood on the beach near the restaurant's property boundary and told people the beach was private and they could not walk on it because it was closed.
Amico said police asked him to help close the beach.
Casey said no police officer requested help clearing the beach.
Amico says that's not true.
"They're making me look like a bad guy in this deal," he said. "They're calling me a liar."
A St. Petersburg Times reporter witnessed two men being turned away. The men said they paid $5 to park at Caddy's and complained that preventing them from walking on the beach was unfair.
When Amico pointed to a nearby Treasure Island police car and suggested they talk to police, the men turned back to the Lions Club. Another man who was turned away said he had been at Caddy's all day and bought lunch there.
Amico denied doing anything improper, saying he was only acting at the request of the police.
"The only thing I do is ask them not to bring their own alcohol or food on the beach," he said.
Did Caddy's overstep?
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A portion of Florida's beaches are generally considered public.
The public-private dividing line is known as the mean high water mark, which is the average high water mark over a certain period. It's in the Florida Constitution.
"The title to lands … including beaches below mean high water lines, is held by the state, by virtue of its sovereignty, in trust for all the people," according to Article X of the Constitution.
Most of the beach next to Caddy's is below the mean high water mark, according to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.
The mean high water mark also cuts through part of the building, according to the 1968 line that DEP says is current because of beach renourishment.
"I'm not governed by the mean high water mark," Amico said.
In a 2009 settlement with the trustees of the Internal Improvement Trust Fund, composed of the governor and Cabinet, the state transferred by quit-claim deed some beach property adjoining the restaurant to Amico's company. The settlement gives him certain rights and allows him to use the property "for purposes not inconsistent with the operations of its business, Caddy's on the Beach."
"The state gave up all interest in the property," he said.
Amico said he still has to let people walk on the beach past his restaurant, but only up to a certain point.
"It's our understanding," said police Chief Casey, "that his property line at the water runs with the tide" and that Caddy's must let people pass from the water line to 15 feet inland.
Ownership beyond established lines is rare in Florida, said David Levin, a lawyer with the Icard Merrill law firm in Sarasota who has specialized in waterfront property law for nearly 30 years.
He said the Caddy's case is very unusual.
"Absent a settlement of this nature, I would not have expected there would be (private) ownership of this land," he said.
After reviewing the settlement, Levin said he believed Caddy's could do what it wanted — including blocking people from walking across — on land deeded to it by the state, but the restaurant would not be able to block people between the water and the deeded land.
The city has not investigated whether the restaurant can legally block people from walking along the beach.
Initially, Treasure Island City Attorney Maura Kiefer was firm about public access to the beach.
"The public has the absolute right to travel the land that lies between the mean high water line and the sea," she said.
But she later backtracked, saying the Caddy's case was more complicated.
"I guess there's exceptions to everything," she said. "We should be careful about absolutes."
Police didn't take issue with Caddy's blocking people along the beach.
Said Casey: "They own the beach.''
Times researcher Natalie A. Watson and Times staff writer Tom Scherberger contributed to this report. Danny Valentine can be reached at (727) 893-8804 or firstname.lastname@example.org.