TREASURE ISLAND — In what may be the most definitive move in a yearslong dispute over who controls the beach in front of bar and restaurant Caddy's on the Beach, a state agency has asked owners to remove signs and other impediments to public access.
But after receiving a letter from the state's Department of Environmental Protection last week asserting the beach is "land for the benefit and use of the public," Caddy's owner Tony Amico said he'll sooner see the state in court than comply, insisting the beach is legally and rightfully his.
"I'm not planning on turning my property over to the state," he said. "If the DEP wants to challenge my titles and rights to the property, they need to address it in a court of law, just like anyone else."
Caddy's has laid claim to a stretch of beach, where there have been reports of restaurant workers preventing people from using foul language, carrying coolers or wandering over from nearby festivities.
According to the Florida Constitution, the public-private dividing line is defined by the average high water mark over a certain period, known as the mean high water mark. Most of the beach next to Caddy's is below the mean high water mark, according to the DEP.
But Amico has long refused to give up his rights to any part of the beach, from the back steps of his restaurant to the water, claiming he has documented property rights to the entire area.
The issue came to a head last summer, when a nearby group of partygoers, almost all black people, were physically blocked from entering the beach near the restaurant's boundary.
Amico said he and several bouncers told the people the beach was closed because police had asked him to help shut the area down. Treasure Island police Chief Tim Casey later said no police officer requested help clearing the beach.
This letter is the first direct order the restaurant has received from a state agency to relinquish its claim to the sandy shore.
The notice was also sent to Mayor Robert Minning of Treasure Island, who met with Amico last week to discuss its explicit instruction that Caddy's "remove any signs that are prohibiting or regulating the public's use of this portion of the beach."
Amico told the mayor he had "no intention" of removing the signs on what he believes to be his property, City Manager Reid Silverboard said in an email to the City Commission.
Minning responded by urging Amico to settle the matter with the state, while leaving the city out of it, Silverboard said. It has long been the city's position that they are "not judge and jury" and should stay out of the dispute.
This reluctance to act is a key facet of the problem, which has been ongoing since 2009, said City Commissioner Alan Bildz, who represents the Sunset Beach area where Caddy's is located.
"The state has come out and set a very clear boundary, showing that the beach is public — this is what everyone has always thought, except for Amico," Bildz said. "But this do-nothing commission refuses to do anything about it. Enough is enough."
That is exactly the sentiment of several of Amico's neighbors, who have taken up the cause through the Sunset Beach Civic Association, which pushed the state to act.
"It is my hope that in working with you, we can ensure the public can enjoy the beach while respecting your rights to your property," the letter reads.
Amico told Minning he would seek legal action against the state within the month.
Marissa Lang can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8804.