ST. PETERSBURG — A legal dispute between a Treasure Island beach concession business owner and the city of St. Petersburg must be reviewed by a mediator before any court case can proceed.
At issue is whether the city legally owns the western portion of its 500-foot-wide Municipal Beach on Treasure Island.
That is where Greg Taylor sets up the beach cabanas, lounge chairs and umbrellas he rents to tourists.
For years, Taylor, and his father before him, paid the city a monthly fee to operate his Taylor Beach Service concession business on the city's beach.
Treasure Island charges a similar monthly fee for Taylor to operate his concession service on about 1 mile of beachfront, including St. Petersburg's Municipal Beach.
Taylor recently stopped paying the fee to St. Petersburg and filed a lawsuit, saying the city does not own the beach all the way down to the water and should pay Taylor back for money it improperly charged him.
Taylor also sued to block the city from carrying out its threat to seize his cabanas and other beach equipment for nonpayment of the concession fee.
On Tuesday, Taylor, his attorney, and Assistant City Attorney Jeanne Hoffmann appeared before Circuit Judge J. Thomas McGrady to argue Taylor's request for an injunction against the city.
McGrady refused to grade the injunction but issued a strong warning to the city not to touch Taylor's equipment.
He "cautioned" the city to "be very careful" before arresting Taylor for trespassing or seizing his equipment.
"There is some question where the (mean high tide) line is," McGrady said.
The location of that line, as well as the state-imposed erosion control line, could be crucial in deciding Taylor's case against the city.
The city says it has always owned all the way to the water and has legal rights to any expansion of the beach because of natural accretion.
The city acquired the beach property in 1938 in a complicated land deal that allowed construction of the causeway connecting the city and Treasure Island.
Several lawsuits over ownership of the beach were apparently resolved in a 1952 court case.
Taylor's attorney, R. Michael Robinson, argues that the city's deed does not include riparian rights to beach growth and that much of the beach has expanded through state-funded beach renourishment programs.
Under state law, such beach expansion is owned by the state, not the upland property owner.
According to Nicole Elko, Pinellas County's coastal coordinator, St. Petersburg does not own the portion of the municipal beach that resulted from beach renourishment projects.
Robinson also argues that whatever the ownership of the beach, under a 1952 court ruling the city has no right to issue permits to any commercial concession on its beach.
Taylor says the cabanas are located west of the state's erosion control line and therefore on public beach.
The Florida Supreme Court recently declared the state's erosion control line is, in fact, the demarcation between public and privately owned land on the shoreline.
The court said the state has a constitutional obligation to protect the beaches and that, under the Beach and Shore Preservation Act, the state owns any new dry land adjacent to the water created through public projects. At the same time, beach renourishment does not change upland property owners' right of access and use to the beach and water, according to the court.
Hoffmann acknowledged Tuesday that St. Petersburg has control of its beach only up to that line and maintained that Taylor's equipment is on the city-owned portion of the beach.
When asked by Judge McGrady if they would allow Taylor to remain on the municipal beach if he paid the back concession fees, Hoffmann said no.
"We don't want him on our beach any longer," she told the judge.
Robinson then asked the judge to approve the injunction "to keep the peace until the litigation is concluded".
Instead, McGrady instructed Taylor and the city to submit their dispute to mediation within the next two months.
If a mediator is unable to resolve the dispute, the case would return to court for litigation.