MADEIRA BEACH — Last year, residents here voted to preserve the 1930s-era Snack Shack. Now they may be asked to vote on whether to sell the beach park to developers.
"The time has come for the community to collectively decide what it wants to do with Archibald Memorial Beach Park," City Attorney Michael Connolly wrote in a special "white paper" describing the park's history and legal issues confronting the city.
Heirs of the original landowners — Albert Archibald and David Welch — are threatening to sue the city for what they say is illegal commercial use of the beach park — including parking meters, vending machines and rental of beach umbrellas at the park.
Ironically, the heirs want the city to settle their complaint by selling the beachfront property to hotel or condominium developers.
Connolly said the city is "between a rock and a hard place."
He now wants the commission and the public to decide the future of the park.
"It appears imperative to discover the will of the people as well as the desire of the Board of Commissioners," Connolly said. "No action can be taken until this proposal has been discussed in a public forum."
That debate will begin at 6 p.m. Tuesday during a special City Commission workshop.
The park was originally given to the federal government in 1933 by corporations owned by Archibald and Welch. Use of the property was restricted on the original deed to recreation. The deed included a specific prohibition against any use "for commercial purposes."
When the federal government turned the beach property over to the city in 1972, the quitclaim deed also included a prohibition against commercial use, but did allow concession agreements for recreational facilities and services.
Mayor Pat Shontz served on the commission in 1972 when the new city park was opened with a major fireworks display.
"It's sad. I don't know why such a beautiful thing has caused such controversy. All these years it has been such an enjoyable place for people," Shontz said.
The log cabin building, originally used by the Interior Department for rehabilitation of veterans, was converted to a beach-related snack shack for beachgoers. It was operated for years by the Disabled American Veterans.
More recently, the commission tried to renovate the Snack Shack as a "destination restaurant." That failed plan eventually cost the city $500,000 to settle a lawsuit with the concessionaire.
Subsequently, Alex Archibald, another heir not involved in this current legal dispute, repeatedly pressed the city to amend the 1972 quitclaim deed to specifically prohibit parking meters and beach concessions.
To avoid a lawsuit against the city, the new group of heirs is willing to allow the property to be sold to a third party. Proceeds from the sale — less reimbursement to the city for the prior $500,000 concessionaire settlement — would go to the heirs, under the proposed agreement.
Complicating the issue is a city charter provision requiring voter approval for the sale of any city-owned property.
An additional complication is a 1972 deed that appears to require ownership of the beach park to return to the U.S. Department of Interior if its recreational use were abandoned.
Connolly said such a sale would require both voter approval and written approval from the Interior Department.
"While there are significant hurdles to be overcome," Connolly said, it appears the sale and development of the park property could be economically beneficial."
He said the beach park could support development of up to 150 hotel rooms and "a major hotel flag could be interested in the property."
The city faces several choices, he said, ranging from selling the property to operating the park without any money-generating activity, to continuing to use the park as it has been used since 1972.
"Even the choices designed to reduce the likelihood of litigation carry a significant threat of a lawsuit," Connolly cautioned.
If the city were to sell or lose Archibald Memorial Beach Park, there are 18 public beach easements and several other beach parks on Gulf Boulevard that residents and visitors can use. They include: County Park between 144th and 146th Avenues, John's Pass Park/South Beach Park across from John's Pass Village, and Kitty Stuart Park between 140th and 141st avenues.