Commission jettisons customary use ordinance

Anna Maria customary use property
This beachfront property ownered by Terry and Pat Olesen will be surveyed and staked this week at the city’s expense. - Joe Hendricks | Sun

ANNA MARIA – City officials have abandoned the pursuit of a customary use ordinance as a means of ensuring continued public access to state-owned public beach lands that lie between private property lines and the city’s coastal waters.

According to the Surfrider Foundation website, a local customary use ordinance recognizes and protects existing public beach access rights based on the legal doctrine of customary use.

On April 12 – in response to a new state law taking effect July 1 –  Anna Maria commissioners directed City Attorney Becky Vose to start working on a customary use ordinance to be adopted before that date. Once the state law is enacted, municipalities will no longer be able to declare customary beach use through a local ordinance. They will need a declaration from a circuit court.

On Thursday, April 26, Mayor Dan Murphy recommended the commission forego the customary use ordinance. After commission discussion and public input, the commissioners voted 4-1 in support of Murphy’s recommendation, with Commissioner Doug Copeland casting the opposition vote.

The public beach areas in question are those seaward of the mean high tide line that establishes property lines on the unrenourished beaches on the Tampa Bay and Sarasota Bay (east) side of Anna Maria Island, and seaward of the erosion control line – closer to the dune line than the mean high tide line – that establishes property lines on the renourished beaches on the Gulf of Mexico (west) side of the Island.

“For 110 years we’ve all gotten along without this because the mean high line has been the rule of the land. Yes, from time to time there are some issues, but for the most part, people don’t mind people walking by their house. What I would suggest is that we leave what’s been in place and not embark on an ordinance that we probably don’t need because of a few places that are hot spots,” Murphy said.

One such hot spot is Terry and Pat Olesen’s bayfront home on South Bay Boulevard. Terry’s recent confrontations with beach walkers were discussed at a city meeting on April 12.

Murphy said that if needed, the city could prove customary use without a new ordinance.

Commissioner Amy Tripp suggested customary use is a county issue, not a city issue.

Commissioner Carol Carter said she knows at least 14 people who recently moved from Anna Maria, and she’s concerned that adopting a customary use ordinance would drive more full-time residents away.

Commissioner Brian Seymour agreed and asked Murphy about the beach surveying scheduled for this week.

“We’re having two, possibly three properties surveyed. These are properties where the owners have stated they want to know exactly where the boundaries are,” Murphy said.

The Olesens’ property is among those that will be surveyed and staked at the city’s expense.

Public input

Several South Bay Boulevard residents opposed the customary use ordinance and no one spoke in favor of it.

Anna Maria customary use public input
Dr. Jose Erbella shares his thoughts on a proposed customary use ordinance. – Joe Hendricks | Sun

“I don’t think we should change anything. I love having my neighbors walk behind the house and enjoy the beach. Our biggest fear is making changes that will really impact our quiet neighborhood,” Dr. Jose Erbella said.

Erbella owns two beachfront homes. He lives in the one on South Bay Boulevard, and his children live in the one on North Shore Drive that until recently had about 40 yards of beach.

“Just a few weeks ago my kids lost their beach on North Shore. The storms completely took their beach away. The water is back to the seawall,” he said of the impermanent nature of beachfront property.

“Walking is a wonderful thing, and I’m all for it, but once you start putting bunches of people out there, there is no room because there is basically no beach,” Jack Whiteside said.

“Terry and I really have no problem with people walking as long as they stay by the water. For us, it’s a liability issue and the enjoyment of our property,” Pat Olesen said.

“We don’t use our back deck as much as we could. We just find it too uncomfortable sometimes. People are almost in our face, and if it gets closer, it’s going to be uninhabitable, and we will be one of the residents that leave,” Dr. David Bulley said.

“There’s no harm in walking the beach. There is harm when people start to encroach on your space,” Sheila Fusé said.

Ashok Sawe asked why there are so many public access paths leading to residential beaches.

Murphy said they were created before he became mayor.

Public access to the beach is required for the county to get beach renourishment funding.

“The access could be water; it could be beach. It all depends on where the mean high tide is. We need to find that out so we can handle these instances on a one-by-one basis. The new law doesn’t change any of that,” he said.

Related Coverage

Beach dispute predates new law