MADEIRA BEACH — Although fewer than two dozen people showed up Tuesday for a special workshop on the future use of Archibald Memorial Park, they gave the City Commission a strong and clear message — fight any attempts to close or sell the beachfront park.
The city is facing a potential lawsuit from self-described heirs of the original property owners who donated the park property to the federal government in the 1930s.
"I am an old Florida cracker and I know what a carpetbagger is," said resident John Hendricks. "This park belongs to Madeira Beach and if my millage has to go up to fight them, so be it."
The group of heirs are pursuing a probate court ruling to legitimize their standing to sue the city.
If that occurs, their attorney has informed the city they will sue for what they say has been illegal commercial use of the beach park and force the sale of the property.
Proceeds of the sale would go to the heirs of Albert Archibald and David Welch, less some $500,000 the city spent several years ago to settle an unrelated law suit concerning park usage.
One resident called on the commission to fight for the city and its park.
"We should spend whatever it takes to fight these people," said Dave Sokolowski.
Former Commissioner Martha Boos suggested the city just give the park back to the federal government and then operate it on a lease.
"It's a lead-pipe cinch these people won't sue the federal government," she said.
The cost of fighting for the park in court could rise as high as $100,000, according to City Attorney Michael Connolly.
He also stressed the city could face legal action even if it were to give the park back or modify the deed to restrict commercial activity.
"They are threatening to sue the city for past conduct," Connolly said.
He outlined four different "options," all of which could involve lawsuits. The options ranged from maintaining the status quo to asking voters and the federal government to allow sale of the beach property.
"All four options have serious drawbacks and may involve a great deal of litigation," Connolly said.
Also complicating the issue is a city charter provision requiring voter approval for the sale of any city-owned property. The 1972 deed from the U.S. Department of Interior calls for ownership of the beach park to return to the U.S. Department of Interior if its public recreational use is abandoned.
Maureen Cadzow, a local realtor who often speaks for Alex Archibald, grandson of one of the original property owners, suggested that the city approach the U.S. Department of Interior to rewrite the 1972 quit claim deed to specifically prohibit any commercial activity at the park.
Archibald, who is not involved in the latest lawsuit, wants the property to remain a public park.
Connolly said changing the deed would not stop the lawsuit, since that group of heirs want to be reimbursed for all money collected by the city from concessions and parking fees for the past 37 years.
"They are saying we violated the original deed and the penalty is to lose the property," Connolly said.
Losing the park would be "a real tragedy," said resident Dick Lewis, stressing it is unlikely that residents would agree to sell the beach property.
The commission took no action Tuesday and apparently will wait until it is sued to decide how to proceed.
There was no clear consensus as to how to move forward and repeated concern over the legal action's potential cost to the city.
"We need to think about the thousands and thousands of dollars this could cost us," said Mayor Pat Shontz. "We are sitting on a hard rock here."
Meanwhile, a special committee advising the city on how the Archibald Park Snack Shack should be used in the future is inviting the public to attend its next meeting at 6 p.m. Wednesday at the Snack Shack.