CLEARWATER — A long-running fight that erupted after some north Clearwater Beach residents roped off sections of the sand and declared them private has gained the attention of a wary City Hall.
Until now, city officials had treated the dispute as a private spat among residents. But tonight, the council will decide if the city should hire a retired judge or a lawyer to try to resolve the issue.
At their Monday work session, council members appeared ready to attempt to bring both sides to the table. The voluntary discussions wouldn't be legally binding, said City Attorney Pam Akin.
"This is more like sticking our toes in the water to get a feel of the temperature," said Hoyt Hamilton, a council member whose family owns the Palm Pavilion on the north beach. "I think it's a good first step."
The conflict over beach access made headlines in November when the Clearwater Beach Association petitioned the City Council to enter the fray. At the time, Akin advised the council to steer clear of the issue. The city doesn't own the beach in the 1000 block of El Dorado Avenue where at least three owners of beachfront homes have created roped-off areas of varying sizes, some boasting "No Trespassing" signs.
The city said that it had no plans to enforce the no-trespassing edicts unless drug activity or prostitution were going on.
The Clearwater Beach Association has argued that roping off parts of the beach will turn off tourists and ding city tax revenue. But property owners point to deeds and other legal documents that extend their property lines to the Gulf of Mexico.
Complicating matters is an unclear 1925 plat of the Mandalay subdivision, then called "The Isle of the Thousand Palms," which could be interpreted either way.
And Florida law isn't much help. The state Department of Environmental Protection determines the "mean high-water line," which determines public access, but the state agency hasn't drawn the line on that section of usually sparsely traveled beach.
Akin said the beach association has a "fairly strong argument" that at least the residents of the subdivision have an unfettered right to use the roped-off sections.
W. Miller, manager of 1068 Eldorado LLC , one of the residences with a roped-off area, wrote in an email to the Tampa Bay Times that "clear legal documentation" exists that his property has a private beach. The DEP has approved the post and ropes, he wrote, adding that many neighbors have said they like the ropes.
"The (Clearwater Beach Association) has acted as a bully regarding this issue. Its officers and directors ignore the data as it is does not give them the answer they want," Miller wrote.
Wendy Hutkin, president of the beach association, said her group is only doing what it has done for seven decades: bringing issues that concern beach residents to the council's attention. She said a facilitated discussion with a legal professional would be helpful.
"We're optimistic," Hutkin said.
Miller didn't respond when asked if he would participate in the mediation.
A mediator would likely charge about $300 an hour and the total cost to the city would likely be between $3,000 and $5,000, Akin said. She said the purpose was to find a compromise or agreement.
"It's entirely possible that this could end up in court," she said. "I'd like for us to maintain flexibility in that regard."
Researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Charlie Frago can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4159. Follow him on Twitter @CharlieFrago. To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.