ST. PETE BEACH — The city will have to pay a property owner's estate nearly $1.5 million, a federal appeals court has ruled in a case that could have huge repercussions for coastal cities and beachfront property owners.
"We are very disappointed and are still evaluating what the city can or cannot do about this decision," City Attorney Andrew Dickman said in an interview, adding: "This opinion has a broad reach, affecting a lot of coastal communities."
At its most basic, the case sharply penalizes the city for encouraging the public to trespass on privately owned beach property and sets a precedent for similar cases involving disputes between beachfront property owners and their local governments.
The decision comes just as a new state law will go into effect July 1 that makes it easier for property owners to bar the public from their private beaches, estimated to include about 60 percent of the state's beaches.
The law restricts local governments from establishing public access to privately owned beaches, defined as the dry sand area upland of the mean high water line.
"Lots of people don't understand that the beach can be owned privately. Visitors here assume all the beach is public," Dickman said.
As interactions between governments and private beach owners increase, he said, there could be similar high-damage awards against coastal cities.
The May 16 ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit upheld an earlier federal District Court jury verdict that found St. Pete Beach "encouraged and invited" the public to use a private beach, "causing the seizure" of residential property.
Under the ruling, the city will pay damages but also receive a "permanent easement" across the private property "for the benefit of the public."
Just how that easement will be defined was referred back to the U.S. District Court for final resolution.
Dickman said the city has "several options" it can choose as a result of the ruling, including appealing to the U.S. Supreme Court.
That option may be unlikely, however, since the appeals court decision referenced a previous Supreme Court decision that said a government could not take an easement to cross a privately owned beach without paying for it.
Dickman indicated he will ask the City Commission to hold a closed session to discuss how it will respond to the court ruling.
The case began in 2009 when Chet Chmielewski, now deceased, filed a lawsuit against the city, claiming it had illegally taken his beachfront property by encouraging the public to walk by the side of his home to reach a privately owned beach.
Chmielewski purchased his home, located just south of the Don CeSar Hotel, in 1972, including acquiring fee simple title to a 50-foot wide and 300-foot deep portion of the beach.
Chmielewski had been a frequent critic of the city for years, particularly after it refused his request to develop beachfront townhomes on his property in 2005.
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In another lawsuit in 2008, he sued, forcing the city to agree the public had no right to access the private beach area.
After the Don Vista Community Center — located just to the north of the Chmielewski property — was renovated, he complained repeatedly that the city encouraged people using the center to access the beach.
The city had cleared a direct public access path from a mini-park to the beach and installed "Beach Access" signs.
Several times Chmielewski blocked a private beachfront sidewalk only to have the city confiscate his lawn chair barricade and threaten to arrest him.
He sued the city again, claiming it had violated its 2008 settlement. Both the district and appeals courts agreed.
At trial, witnesses testified that the area around Chmielewski's property was "quiet, serene, pleasant and peaceful" before the Don Vista renovation, and that, afterward, people frequently walked alongside the Chmielewski home to reach the beach.
During the dispute, Chmielewski filed and won another lawsuit against the city, this time involving a Sunshine Law violation. The city had to pay $125,000 in legal fees for that case.
Now, the Chmielewski estate is to be another $1.5 million richer, and the city has a court-approved public easement not only to the beach access path but to the entire Chmielewski beach property.