Treasure Island — Amid angry threats of a lawsuit and an inconclusive legal analysis, the City Commission dropped an investigation of the ownership of beachfront property behind Caddy's on the Beach bar and restaurant.
"We will consider the matter closed for now," Mayor Bob Minning said at the end of a nearly two-hour debate last week.
The question arose in the summer when former commissioner Ed Gayton Jr. insisted that Caddy's owner Tony Amico did not own the lots, despite a settlement agreement with the state that deeded the beachfront property to Amico's businesses.
Caddy's beachfront is virtually the only section of Sunset Beach where the city's seasonal ban on alcoholic beverages does not apply — specifically because Amico says the area is private property.
Before the drinking ban was put in place earlier this year, Sunset Beach had become a top gathering place for beachgoers, often attracting thousands.
That popularity led to behavioral problems and continuing complaints from residents, forcing the city to strengthen law enforcement efforts.
To control behavior on its part of the beach, Caddy's owner barred beachgoers from bringing coolers and at least once barred people from walking onto his beach property.
"This is a beach that has been a public beach for decades, and all of a sudden we have people come in upset and complaining that they are barred from crossing this one area of land," said City Attorney Maura Kiefer, as she explained why the city started researching ownership.
After the strong urging of Commissioner Alan Bildz, who represents Sunset Beach, the commission hired attorney David Levin last month to investigate who owns the land.
Levin's report, which cost $2,500, examined the history of the beachfront, its ownership and changing geography over the past century.
Caddy's holds title to the land, including submerged lots, Levin said, but he questioned whether the state was legally correct in granting Amico title to the beach lots in 2009.
"True ownership can only be determined by a court of law," Levin said.
That prospect led Amico to threaten the city with legal action before last week's meeting.
"Why is the city involved, and why does a court need to decide anything?" Amico asked the commission last week.
His two attorneys strongly cautioned the commission against pursuing the matter.
"This whole proceeding is entirely inappropriate," said attorney David Smolker. "You have no business doing what you are doing tonight. … Only a court of law can decide, and you, ladies and gentlemen, cannot do that."
Smolker warned that the city would face consequences for continuing its investigation of Amico's ownership.
Amico's other attorney, Ethan Loeb, was even more blunt.
"In the past, I stood before you in another case, and it cost the city $3.725 million," Loeb said, holding up a 3-foot-wide copy of the check the city had to write in that case.
"You are opening up a box that you do not want to open," Loeb said.
During the commission debate afterward, Bildz insisted that the commission press forward.
"We all want to know if what Mr. Amico says is what the (state) meant," Bildz said.
At one point Bildz accused Minning of shirking his duty by not supporting the investigation.
Minning angrily denied the charge and asked Bildz whether he was willing to spend taxpayers' money to take the land ownership issue to court.
Bildz, and the rest of the commission, agreed they did not.
Such a course would be a "fool's fight," Commissioner Phil Collins said.