MADEIRA BEACH — Threatened lawsuits be damned. The city is moving ahead with plans to operate Archibald Park as a public beach, complete with concessions and a refurbished Snack Shack.
What will go on inside the Snack Shack is still a matter of debate, but the City Commission made clear during a workshop discussion last week that it wants nothing to change at the park.
Rival groups of heirs of the original beachfront landowners are alternately demanding that the city halt all commercial concessions at the park, or that the city sell the property to benefit at least one group of heirs.
An attorney representing Archibald and Welch LLC, a holding company for one group of heirs, has filed an action in probate court seeking to reopen the issue of ownership.
Albert Archibald and David Welch donated the beach property to the federal government in the 1930s. The U.S. Department of the Interior gave the property to the city in 1972 to be operated as a public park.
Last month, the city received a letter from the federal agency certifying that the pending concession agreement is "consistent" with the 1972 deed restricting the use of the property to a "recreational park and beach for governmental purposes" while barring commercial use.
"The rental of beach chairs, umbrellas, lounges, nonmotorized water scooters and paddle boats is clearly beach use related," wrote William Huie, program manager for federal lands and parks in the Southeast.
Huie specifically noted that both the 1931 and 1972 deeds "do not prohibit money generating operations which are supplementary and complementary to the public park and public recreational activities."
He also stressed that the property "cannot be sold" and that under the 1972 quit-claim deed the city is obligated "to defend title to this property in perpetuity."
City Attorney Michael Connolly told the commission that no matter what actions the city takes regarding the beach park, it faces the threat of one or more lawsuits.
"This is the cloud hanging over the city, and it is not going to go away," Connolly said.
If the lawsuit does go to trial, it could take up to two years to resolve, he said.
"Isn't it true that this kind of a lawsuit could bankrupt Madeira Beach?" asked Mayor Pat Shontz.
Connolly said if the city lost the court battle, it could face paying court costs, attorneys' fees and penalties that might reach half a million dollars or more.
He recommended the "status quo" at Archibald Park — operating the park as a public facility, complete with parking meters and concession agreements with outside parties.
If a lawsuit is filed challenging the city's operation of the park, Connolly said he is "confident" the city will prevail and may even be able to have the lawsuit tossed out.
"I feel we should not stop acting like a city," City Manager W.D. Higginbotham Jr. told the commission as he urged approval of a pending beach chair and umbrella concession contract.
A citizens committee is also reviewing proposals for use of the Snack Shack when it reopens. The historic log cabin has been undergoing renovation since voters passed a referendum requiring the city to maintain the building.
Among the proposals under consideration are a food concession, a location for events such as civic organization meetings or even weddings, a museum or art gallery, and a picnic spot with grills and tables.
The committee is expected to report its recommendations to the commission within the next several months.
Meanwhile, the commission is scheduled to approve a beach chair concession contract with Shark Tooth Rentals LLC at its March 24 meeting.