Florida's millions of acres of waterfront belong to everyone. This long-standing trust makes Florida an attractive place to live and grants the public access to the state's beautiful beaches and its bodies of water. But these public rights can annoy waterfront property owners, who tend to be a litigious bunch when it comes to testing the law's limits. Restaurant owner Dewey Destin is a prime example. He is wrongly asserting a right to use submerged land for his Panhandle restaurant, and rather than uphold the public's rights, the state Department of Environmental Protection looks like it might give in.
Destin's restaurant is an illegal structure built on an illegal spot. As the Tampa Bay Times Craig Pittman reported this week, it sits on a pier that juts into Choctawhatchee Bay in Destin (yes, the man and the town share the name). Destin had leased the submerged land from the state for a dock to service his commercial fishing business in 1985, paying about $300 a year. The lease expressly barred a restaurant. But that didn't stop Destin. He converted a bait shop into a restaurant in 2002 after his commercial fishing business foundered.
Despite the loud complaints from a neighbor over the restaurant's trash and trespassing patrons, as well as the fact that Destin didn't get a building permit or an occupational license, city and DEP regulators have not shut him down. This unjustified foot-dragging has lasted through the tenure of Florida's last three governors: Republicans Jeb Bush, Charlie Crist and Rick Scott. A lawsuit filed by Destin posits the outlandish claim that his family built docks over the submerged acreage before Florida became a state and that makes it privately owned.
Destin's claim should be fought vigorously in the courts. Otherwise untold numbers of old Florida families could assert similar ownership rights, resulting in a massive transfer of submerged state property into private hands. But rather than fight, the DEP is in talks with Destin to settle the case that would leave the restaurant intact. Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, incoming president of the state Senate, had his staff intervene on Destin's behalf with the DEP, which may be influencing the process.
This is not a close call, and the DEP shouldn't back down. Just as it shouldn't in the case of Caddy's beachfront restaurant in Treasure Island, where owner Tony Amico is claiming that he owns the beach behind his restaurant all the way to the Gulf of Mexico.
Florida's waterfront is a priceless asset that belongs to the public. Any compromise of those rights harms the public's legacy and gives away what can never be replaced.