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Shifting sands of island ownership

Back in '46, when birds and bugs still outnumbered people, three local men decided this sparkling strip of sand and trees would make a great fishing spot.

They decided to make it their own.

For $5, split three ways, C. Frank Harrison, Howard Rees and Walter "Red" Collany bought from the state of Florida 37 acres of land and a kind of privacy many say is gone forever from the waters off Pinellas County.

But buying a piece of Florida is not always such a firm proposition. As the years moved along, so did Shell Key.

So, when the son of an original owner recently sought to restrict the hoards of boaters who visit the island on weekends, he made an unsettling discovery: Much of what his father purchased no longer exists. It's under water.

As far as Mark Harrison is concerned, there's little he can do.

"I don't worry about what I don't have anymore," he says.

Birds, boaters love Shell Key

The metamorphosis of Shell Key might never have come up except that Harrison, 29, of St. Petersburg decided in April to restake his claim to his father's fishing spot.

Harrison, who says his family mostly forgot about the property after his father died, said he first became interested a few years back when some environmentalists sought his permission to do some bird-watching on his land.

Local Audubon Society members say the island is an important nesting area and one of the few remaining places in the county where migrating birds stop over on their trips north and south.

But birds are not the only ones who favor the island. Each weekend hundreds of boaters drop anchor _ sometimes three deep _ off the chalky white sand to picnic, camp and throw parties.

This spring Harrison finally got fed up. After hearing rumors of such parties, Harrison launched a one-man campaign to rid "his island" of humans.

"I heard there were drunken brawls out there. That's just totally unacceptable to me," said Harrison, who not only worried about the environment but also any liability to his family. He said he also spoke for the Collany family. The Rees family could not be located.

On April 22, Harrison posted "No Trespassing" signs on the island and the next day asked the Sheriff's Office to help enforce them.

"I think he put those signs up on a Thursday. I told him they wouldn't last through Friday night," said Sgt. Mike Hunter of the sheriff's marine patrol.

He was right. Boaters and campers who had been going there for years quickly became incensed by the sudden affront. The signs became kindling for the many bonfires lit on weekend nights, Hunter said.

Word spread from captain to captain, up and down the Pinellas coast. Some guy, it seemed, was trying to run them off their favorite getaway. They insisted the island was state-owned property. They vowed to fight.

Hunter said he told Harrison that he would have to prove ownership before anyone was going to kick anyone off the island.

Sure enough, Harrison provided a deed that the county then researched, said Ellyn Kadel of the county's real estate office. Records were pulled, and it was discovered that on Oct. 30, 1946, Collany, Rees and Harrison split 37 acres across the water from the tip of Pass-a-Grille.

The documents said the cost of the land was $5 "and other considerations," although no one seems to know what those other considerations are.

The fickle shoreline

The Harrison name is well known in St. Petersburg history. Known as Cy, C. Frank Harrison served as a City Council member from 1941 until 1953. His grandfather, Edgar Harrison, was one of the city's first mayors.

Land ownership and records tracing it are sketchy, but it appears Harrison and Collany's interest in the island dates back as far as 1926.

As the years passed, Mother Nature and progress conspired.

All around the tiny fishing island new channels were dredged to make way for waterfront development, causing the currents to change.

Parts of the island sank and others emerged. Today the entire shape has changed. What used to be a mostly north-south strip of sand now runs almost directly east-west.

Kadel and Hunter said when the county plotted Harrison's claim on a map, it found that all but about 5 acres is now under water.

The only reminder of his father's shoreline are a couple of pilings sticking up a few hundred feet offshore.

So much for Harrison's legal claim to keep people off.

Harrison said he will continue to try to restrict traffic on his remaining acres by posting signs so that the land can be used for bird nesting.

But other than that, thanks to Mother Nature, the island apparently belongs to anyone who wants to drop anchor there.

That suits area boaters fine, most of whom had no idea the island ever belonged to anybody, anyway.

"I'm pleased," said Alva Sholty, who operates the Shell Key Shuttle, which makes daily runs to the island.

"I hope and believe that we can strike a nice balance between the needs of the birds and the controlled and responsible use of the islands by recreational and tour boats."

A key on the move

In the 47 years since three pals bought a favorite fishing spot, development and time have altered the appearance and location of Shell Key, a small island off the southern tip of Pinellas County's Gulf beaches.