Pedro Redero thought it would be a normal day at the beach.
One sweltering afternoon in June, the 71-year-old Belleair Beach resident and his wife, Yoli, found a spot in neighboring Belleair Shore to set up Redero’s favorite umbrella — blue with an American flag patch he had sewn to the top.
Redero has come to this beach for 11 years. After multiple bouts of skin cancer, he tries to stay in the shade. He was relaxing when a Pinellas County sheriff’s deputy and sergeant approached.
“You guys know why we’re here, right?” the deputy asked.
The culprit: Redero’s umbrella.
A Belleair Shore ordinance bans “temporary shade structures” on the beach — no tents, canopies or umbrellas — so the deputy gave Redero a $116 citation.
“I love this country and the freedom it provides,” said Redero, who fled as a kid from Cuba to the U.S. “To see something like this happen to my wife and I, and even to some of our friends, this is just not right.”
The ordinance, passed by the Belleair Shore Town Commission in June 2020, has frustrated and befuddled beachgoers, igniting a bitter neighborhood battle. The town, recently named by Zillow as the ninth most expensive city in the U.S., designed the ordinance to deter outsiders from frolicking on their stretch of paradise.
But residents in Belleair Beach, who claim they have legal rights to Belleair Shore’s beach, say the law diminishes their property values and prevents them from enjoying a day out on the sand. Led by the former mayor of Belleair Beach, they are challenging the umbrella ban in court.
“They refused to make any concessions for us. And so they gave us no alternative but to sue them and defy,” Yoli Redero said. “I mean, that’s what America is about.“
On a recent Friday, Belleair Shore’s beach was almost empty — a mile of sand and water fronted by 57 properties, including multimillion-dollar mansions adorned with terraces, gated courtyards and rows of palm trees. At the town’s northern boundary, where Belleair Beach begins, a thicket of umbrellas, tents and canopies sprang up.
In 1995, Belleair Shore earned national notoriety for prosecuting a mother and daughter sipping iced coffee on the beach. A year later, then-Mayor Robert Clayton flashed a gold-plated badge at two beach visitors and told them to leave, shouting,“I am the police.” And in 2018, the town debated removing turtle nests from the beach.
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Today, according to the U.S. Census, 76 people live there.
Belleair Shore’s beach is divided by an invisible state boundary called the Erosion Control Line. Everything seaward of the line is held by the state and the sand landward belongs to residents. The private portion varies in size, from 100 feet wide in the southern part of town to almost nothing at its northern border with Belleair Beach.
In the summer of 2020, when most Pinellas beaches closed, people came to Belleair Shore and put up canopies and other shade structures on some of the privately owned sections of the beach, said town resident Gene Camali. They often broke rules by drinking alcohol and eating food, and they would climb on to seawalls or sit on residents’ private chairs. Homeowners also complained the visitors’ beach gear blocked their views.
Town commissioners responded that June with Ordinance 2020-01, which said no person shall “erect, possess, or cause to be erected any tent, canopy, umbrella, temporary shade structure or recreation structure on the beach within the incorporated limits of the Town.”
Commissioner Dorothy Niewiarowski said it would “deter people from coming on the beach” and predicted, “They’re going to be annoyed.”
So far, Pinellas deputies have mostly issued verbal warnings to beachgoers with umbrellas. Redero was the first to receive a citation after multiple warnings. On Aug. 6, deputies cited another beachgoer, Robert Angelo, who also had received a warning.
According to body camera footage from the sheriff’s office, Redero and his friends spent more than an hour wrangling with Sgt. Matthew Sapanara and Deputy Joseph Guirguis.
“You chose to come out here and harass us,” said Barry Gray, one of Redero’s friends.
The deputies also issued verbal warnings to several other beachgoers, whose reactions ranged from bewilderment to anger.
“My daughter is a doctor at Morton Plant (Hospital). I hope you never go there,” one woman said.
As written, the ordinance applies to private and public sections of the beach and to residents and nonresidents. But deputies have been instructed not to enforce it against residents on private sections of the beach, a decision that has complicated the issue and resulted in case-by-case decisions on who gets cited.
“It’s just a messy law,” said Christine Ann Klein, a professor at the University of Florida Levin College of Law.
For the past two years, Joseph Manzo has dedicated hundreds of hours to fighting the shade ordinance in court.
An attorney and the former mayor of Belleair Beach, he moved there in 2015 to be close to the Belleair Shore beach, where property deeds guarantee him convenient access from his home. He is at risk for skin cancer and the shade ordinance prevents him from safely enjoying the beach, he said. It’s also a dent on his property value.
“It’s absurd. It’s a ridiculous law,” Manzo said. Other Belleair Beach residents agree.
“I mean what’s next? Sunglasses? Bathing suits? What else do you think you can outlaw?” Yoli Redero said.
In July 2020, Belleair Shore Mayor Robert Schmidt, fearing a lawsuit, recommended amending the ordinance to allow for umbrellas. But other commissioners wouldn’t go along.
That September, Manzo filed a lawsuit challenging the ordinance and has since been joined by 48 other Belleair Beach residents.
The Tampa Bay Times’ request to interview Mayor Schmidt, Commissioner Niewiarowski and Commissioner Stephen Blume was declined through Belleair Shore’s town attorney, who cited the ongoing lawsuit.
Belleair Beach Mayor Dave Gattis, meanwhile, has been speaking with Belleair Shore officials to try to change the ordinance. In July, Belleair Shore commissioners proposed allowing single-pole, 4-foot-wide umbrellas on small patches of sand near the town’s beach access lots if Manzo dropped his lawsuit.
But Manzo declined. He wants umbrellas to be allowed on the public sections of the beach, not just at the access lots. His lawsuit also argues that food and bicycles should be allowed, and he’s seeking compensation for damages.
“Our property value is tied to (the beach),” Manzo said. “This is my biggest asset that I have and I’m just not going to let anyone take that away from me.”
Manzo also represents Redero in his case involving the citation. He has filed a motion to dismiss the charges, alleging that the ordinance is unconstitutional.
On a recent Thursday, Redero sat in court for his arraignment. He wore a navy blazer and a tie with yellow, orange and purple hearts on it. He’s only ever been to court for jury duty.
“Having to come to court over an umbrella, especially criminal court, is embarrassing,” he said. “I just wish this was over with.”