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Whose beach is it really?

Greg Taylor and his daughter Jessica run their business on the west portion of St. Petersburg Municipal Beach in Treasure Island.

SCOTT KEELER | Times

Greg Taylor and his daughter Jessica run their business on the west portion of St. Petersburg Municipal Beach in Treasure Island.

TREASURE ISLAND — St. Petersburg may not own hundreds of feet of its municipal beach on Treasure Island.

That's what Greg Taylor, owner of Taylor Beach Service, believes. He is suing the city to prove his point.

For years, Taylor has paid thousands of dollars in permit fees so he could rent out cabanas, chairs, umbrellas and kayaks at the city's municipal beach on Treasure Island.

Now, he wants his money back.

"I was at a public meeting about beach renourishment and began to wonder if the city really owned the beach. The city told me they owned all the way down to the water, but other people told me that wasn't true," Taylor said.

He stopped paying his permit fee to St. Petersburg, and when the city sent him a letter threatening to seize his beach equipment, he sued.

"I decided to let a judge decide," Taylor said.

Assistant City Attorney Jeanne Hoffmann, responding to Taylor's complaint for "unjust enrichment," says the city does own the beach.

The city acquired the beach property in 1938 in a complicated land deal that accompanied construction of the causeway connecting St. Petersburg and Treasure Island. Subsequent lawsuits over ownership of the beach were apparently resolved in a 1952 court case.

"Any and all land which as accreted to the Municipal Beach also belongs to the City of St. Petersburg," Hoffmann wrote in a letter to Taylor's attorney, R. Michael Robinson.

Accretion is a legal term that is generally restricted to the natural and gradual buildup of beaches.

Robinson also argues that under a 1952 court ruling, St. Petersburg has no right to issue permits to any commercial concession on the beach. Only Treasure Island, as the controlling municipality, has that right, he contends.

Taylor holds and continues to pay fees for a permit from Treasure Island that covers about a mile of beach, including the area of the St. Petersburg Municipal Beach.

The case will be argued Tuesday before Circuit Court Judge J. Thomas McGrady.

Meanwhile, Taylor continues to rent his cabanas and beach chairs. Each day, he and his 21-year-old daughter, Jessica, patrol their string of more than 80 cabanas placed along their permitted mile of beach.

They are continuing a family tradition that started in the 1950s when his father, Clyde, started the beach concession business.

Taylor says the cabanas are west of the state's erosion control line and therefore on public beach.

Key to Taylor's court case is the question of how beach renourishment programs affect ownership.

Under Florida common law, the state and therefore the public owns the beach from the edge of the water to the mean high tide mark. Upland property owners, whether St. Petersburg or nearby hotels, own and can control access to their deeded portion of the land side of the beach.

What complicates the issue is expansion of beaches through renourishment paid for by taxpayers.

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.

Elko, who is responsible for planning and managing beach renourishment projects, said St. Petersburg Municipal Beach was directly renourished in 1971, 1982 and 1986. In addition, sand deposited by waves on the municipal beach over the years by adjacent or nearby renourishment does not belong to the city.

"The source of sand determines ownership," Elko said. "The state owns submerged bottom land. If a huge portion of dry land is created on submerged land by man with public funds, that land remains vested with the state."

The issue of ownership of renourished parts of Florida's beaches also was addressed by the Florida Supreme Court on Monday. Overturning a lower court ruling, it said the state owns any new dry land next to the water created through public projects.

Whose beach is it really? 09/30/08 [Last modified: Thursday, October 2, 2008 3:26pm]
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