ANNA MARIA – The lines in the sand have been drawn – aka surveyed and staked – in two beachfront locations along South Bay Boulevard.
On Wednesday, May 2, surveyors placed three wooden stakes along the mean high-water line that establishes the private property line in front of a beachfront home along the 500 block of South Bay Boulevard. As a second point of reference, Mayor Dan Murphy also asked the surveyors to stake the mean high-water line near the public access path on the 600 block of South Bay Boulevard.
The handwritten phrase “Apparent MHW” appears on each of the survey stakes. The city also has been provided the GPS coordinates of the survey points should the stakes be removed by nature or humans. Murphy said the survey work cost approximately $900.
Murphy requested the surveying at the city’s expense because the beach area between the water and a bayfront home on South Bay Boulevard has been discussed at recent city commission meetings as a source of confrontation between the property owners and people walking the residential beach along the Tampa Bay shoreline.
Last summer, the property owners placed two signs between their home and the water that say: “No Trespassing. This beach is private property.”
A visit to the newly staked areas at 10:20 a.m. on Thursday, May 3, revealed the incoming tidal waters of Tampa Bay had already risen above the mean high-water line in both locations – and high tide wasn’t expected that day until 2:20 p.m.
According to the stakes, people walking landward of the mean high-water line are walking on private property and the property owners have the right to ask them to leave. For much of last week, anyone walking that section of beach would have had to walk in the water to avoid walking on private property.
Private property owners have no such rights when it comes to people walking seaward of the mean high-water line. All land seaward of the mean high-water line (or the erosion control line where beach renourishment has occurred) is state-owned public land.
The mean high-water line is established using a 19-year average based on local tidal data established by tidal observations made at specific tide stations.
When asked how the city plans to deal with future conflicts that may arise between private property owners and people walking along that stretch of residential beach, Murphy said, “My advice is that we all respect each other and are tolerant with each other.”
When interviewed on April 12, one property owner correctly estimated where his property line was, and said he was considering installing rope and bollard fencing to delineate his property line and discourage foot traffic.
Installation of a beachfront fence will require a permit from the city, but a recent federal lawsuit supports property owners’ right to install fences.
In March 2017, Walton County commissioners adopted a customary use ordinance in response to beachfront property owners erecting fences.
“No individual, group or entity shall impede or interfere with the right of the public to utilize the dry sand areas of the beach that are owned by private entities,” the ordinance said.
In November 2017, a federal court ruled the Walton County ordinance language prohibiting fencing was unconstitutional and violated property owners’ First Amendment rights. The federal court viewed fences as an expression of free speech that conveyed a message to others to stay off their property.
During the City Commission’s April 26 meeting, property owners Pat Olesen, Dr. David Bulley and Dean Foster were among those who expressed concerns about people walking and congregating on the private beaches in front of their bayfront homes. Their public testimony contributed to the City Commission’s decision to discontinue the pursuit of a customary use ordinance as a potential means of protecting the historic and customary public use of privately-owned beach lands.
A new state law that takes effect July 1 will require a court order before local governments can adopt or maintain an ordinance based upon the public’s customary use of any portion of beach above the mean high-water line. The new law does not apply to ordinances adopted and enacted before Jan. 1, 2016.