State officials are investigating whether two Clearwater Beach residents illegally removed sea oats from the dunes behind their homes. This is the second time in two years that authorities have been called to Eldorado Avenue to investigate reports of dune destruction.
"Our dunes keep disappearing and then it's a battle to bring them back," said Wendy Hutkin, president of the Clearwater Beach Association.
The latest incident is another flare-up in a neighborhood property dispute that dates back several years. Several homeowners on Eldorado, including those accused of removing sea oats, have claimed ownership of beach areas behind their homes and designated them as such with ropes, lines of plants, "no trespassing" signs and, most recently, surveillance cameras.
The ropes, signs and cameras give tourists an unfriendly impression of the neighborhood, Hutkin said.
Under state law, public access to the beach begins below the mean high tide line. But the line, set by the state Department of Environmental Protection, has not been established in this area of Clearwater Beach. Property owners have cited deeds and other legal documents that show their properties extending to the Gulf of Mexico, but other documents can be interpreted either way. And even if the property is private, there are also easements and other customary laws that may allow for certain kinds of public usage.
The neighborhood association at one point asked the city to intervene, but City Attorney Pam Akin told the council and homeowners last November that the city had no legal interest in the matter.
The city did agree in April to hire a mediator to help settle the dispute, but months later, it's unclear whether all the homeowners will agree to mediation.
"It's going to take some convincing," Akin said.
The most recent incident began in early August when Clearwater police received reports of sea oats removal at 832 and 834 Eldorado Avenue. Police turned the case over to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. They both launched investigations.
On Sept. 5, the DEP sent a letter to Keith and Gabrielle Allman, who own 832 Eldorado Ave., giving them the opportunity to address a "possible non-compliance" with voluntary revegetation instead of formal enforcement.
"Some, if not all, of the non-compliant vegetation removal was conducted by your neighbor, Mr. Joseph Suarez (who owns 834 Eldorado Ave.)," the letter said. "However, as owner of the subject property, you are responsible for resolving any apparent violations or non-compliance."
The Allmans and Suarezes declined to comment, but both applied for permits to clean dead sea oats and other vegetation, remove weeds, widen their pathway to the beach to about 6 to 8 feet wide, reslope and taper sand along the seawall where they say erosion has caused a 12- to 18-inch deep ditch and plant 100 to 200 sea oats, according to the nearly identical permit applications. They believe the activities fall under an exemption allowed by state law for "maintenance of existing beach dune vegetation."
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"We began the above work under Florida statutes … but were asked to obtain proper permits from the DEP thus the enclosed application," the applications stated. "We have worked with the Clearwater Police Department and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission."
The DEP received the applications Sept. 10, and they are still being reviewed.
Meanwhile, the FWC investigation continues, said spokesman Baryl Martin.
Private property or not, Martin Greenberg, who lives at 835 Mandalay Ave., said he and other neighbors are upset because the dunes and sea oats are their "only natural barrier against storm surges, hurricanes and high tides."
"That's our concern. It's like a cancer," Greenberg said. "If he's allowed to do it, then the next (homeowners) say, 'Well I'm going to do it, too' … and pretty soon, we won't have dunes."
Sea oats play a key role in sand stability, and their removal is a "serious problem," said Debbie Miller, professor of wildlife ecology and conservation at the University of Florida.
Without the sea oats' roots, "the sand is mobile. It doesn't have anything holding it in place," she said.
Removal of dune vegetation on land facing the sea without a permit is a first-degree misdemeanor, punishable by a sentence of up to a year in jail and a fine up to $1,000.
DEP spokeswoman Dee Ann Miller said consequences are "evaluated on a case-by-case basis and mitigating factors are often considered."
Last year, a homeowner on the 700 block of Eldorado Avenue was fined $1,000 for bulldozing sand dunes and was ordered to replant the sea oats. The contractor was charged with a misdemeanor for failing to obtain the necessary permit. He pleaded no contest and paid $450 in fines and court costs, according to court records.
Contact Taylor Goldenstein at email@example.com or (727) 445-4155. Follow @taygoldenstein.