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  1. Pinellas

Battle over public beach access has no end in sight

ST. PETE BEACH — A court fight over ownership of the white sand beach along the Gulf of Mexico could have a long-term impact on the public's right to use that beach.

Court briefs filed by the city and the Silver Sands condominium over the past month indicate there is little chance of resolving the issue anytime soon.

The U.S. District Court in Tampa has set a trial date for March 2020, nearly a year and a half from now.

Between now and then, the parties must conduct discovery, file motions and enter into mediation no later than next September. If mediation fails, the trial will proceed.

At issue is the public's right to use and traverse the white sand areas on the city's beaches.

The problem arises when a property owner claims ownership of the beach all the way to the mean high water line.

The city lost a similar dispute in another case that ending up costing it nearly $2 million.

If the Silver Sands is successful in challenging a city ordinance enacted last summer to protect the public's right to enjoy the dry white sand areas of the city's beaches, it could affect public use of the beach throughout the city.

The disputed ordinance prohibits any restraint, including signage, of the public's right to use the beach as customarily done over the years.

It was prompted by a new state law then about to go into effect that would otherwise have required the city to seek court approval to enforce continued usage by the public of beaches that are privately owned.

Having the ordinance on the books prior to implementation of the new law was supposed to eliminate that requirement.

The Florida Supreme Court had previously ruled that if the public has been freely using even private beaches for years, the local government can cite "customary use" allowing the public to remain.

The Silver Sands disagreed and posted signs warning the public to stay off its property. The city then repeatedly removed the signs, prompting it to sue the city

Now, because of the Silver Sands' continued insistence that the public should not trespass on its beach property, the city finds itself in federal court where its ordinance is being challenged as unconstitutional by violating the First, Fourth, Fifth, and 14th Amendments of the U.S. Constitution, as well as the Florida Constitution.

The condominium's lawsuit, originally filed in September, and city responses were updated last month.

The condominium claims it owns all of the beach down to the mean high water line, while the city says the portion of the renourished white sand beach westward of the erosion control line belongs to the state and therefore is open to the public.

The difference, depending on coastal erosion, can be tens or hundreds of feet of beach.

The city has asked the court to issue a declaratory judgment delineating the seaward boundary of the condominium property.

The Silver Sands hit back in its latest filing, insisting that the city's request for the court to establish a boundary line separating its property from the public beach is invalid since in the condominium's view the city does not own the beach property and has no standing to make the request.

The condominium's ownership to the beach as far as the mean high water line has been recognized by the city "over many years," according to attorney Timothy Weber.

He is also seeking, on behalf of the condominium complex, that the court declare an inverse condemnation of the beach to compensate for an illegal taking of its land.

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