Who owns the beach?

A dispute over a slice of Sunset Beach could have implications for the entire state.

click to enlarge THIS SAND IS MINE: Tony Amico, owner of Caddy’s on the Beach. - Shanna Gillette
Shanna Gillette
THIS SAND IS MINE: Tony Amico, owner of Caddy’s on the Beach.

By the time the men had started frantically shoveling wet beach sand into small yellow bags, Debby had already eaten a good chunk of the beach that skirts Caddy’s on the Beach, the storied waterfront bar. It was clear the water was on its way up, and once it got there, it would want in.

Sunset Beach, the lush, charming Treasure Island neighborhood that’s home to Caddy’s, was not new to this type of tumult. Like any Gulf beach, it’s seen more than its share of storm systems packing a wallop.

But Sunset Beach has lately seen a different type of tumult — a scrum of lawyers and dollars — that some say could have an historic impact: a battle over the stretch of sand that skirts Caddy’s on the Beach.

Caddy’s owner Tony Amico says that the beach belongs to him, fair and square. He says the state — by way of the Board of Trustees of the Internal Improvement Trust Fund of the State of Florida — handed it over to him in a 2009 settlement. Quitclaim deeds signed by former Governor Charlie Crist and his cabinet, which constituted the board of trustees, seem to hand all rights to the beachfront property — including the beach — to Amico’s Gulf Sands Properties, LLC.

A Florida Department of Environmental Protection letter, dated June 1, 2012, begged to differ. Dubbed the “Dougherty Letter” after the name of its author, FDEP Deputy Secretary of Land and Recreation Al Dougherty, it reads: “To the extent that there is dry land waterward of the nine lots conveyed, the Board of Trustees claims ownership to that land for the benefit and use of the public.”

The letter goes on to ask Amico to “remove any signs that are prohibiting the public’s use of this portion of the beach.”

Amico isn’t having it. He says the matter isn’t up to FDEP; that the Board of Trustees is the sole authority on this.

“That’s the only body that has the right to give up property,” he says.

So he’s suing the state.

Sunset Beach is one of those neighborhoods that residents are willing to fight for. It’s a narrow peninsula where ancient, cedar-walled tenements mingle with granite snowbird nests. Hibiscus and plumeria line the streets. Music is always in the air — coming either from the divey, thatched-roof blues joint Ka Tiki or the apartment where the band Sunza Beaches rehearses. Watching the sunset is a daily ritual most will miss only because of inclement weather.

But there’s one thing about Sunset Beach that makes it particularly magnetic: the neighbors. Some are lawyers, some are musicians, and some, well, you’re not really sure what they do. It doesn’t matter. Everyone stops in the street to chat. Everyone comes out for the Holiday Stroll, which gets pretty raucous. Everyone — everyone — loves Sunset Beach so much that they tend to watch closely for any decision that could impact their way of life.

This is why they care so much about how a portion of their beach is defined.

A few years ago, Sunset Beach was defined by something embarrassing and inconvenient — a weekly influx of thousands of hard-core partiers who came to do body shots and presumably compare tramp stamps. Debauchery and parking issues abounded. At the time, drinking was legal on the beach, and Caddy’s was in the middle of the madness. It got so bad, Amico says, that he had to spend $70,000-$100,000 per year on law enforcement, porta-potties, and other things aimed at offsetting the crowds.

Long story short, the problems led the Treasure Island City Commission to propose a controversial beach-wide alcohol ban. After a widely publicized debate, commissioners agreed on a compromised ban that applied to stretches of beach north and south of Caddy’s. Since Caddy’s was considered a private beach, the rule did not apply to the beach there.

The inebriates migrated to some other Jäger-and-fist-pumping hub, but the locals were still not happy. They were left with stretches of beach on which they could not legally crack open a cold one on a Saturday afternoon — even though Caddy’s customers could still legally walk out to the water, mai-tais in hand.

Some are objecting to the idea that part of Sunset Beach, unlike pretty much every other beach in the state, does not belong to all Floridians.

“You need to have public ownership of the beach,” says Kristy Andersen, president of the Sunset Beach Civic Association. “This is a very basic thing… it is a big deal.”

The civic association wrote a letter to the state that spurred the Dougherty letter. Andersen said the group didn’t think city officials were doing enough to enforce what the association sees as state law that’s outlined in Florida’s constitution.

In Andersen’s view, the City of Treasure Island hasn’t lifted a finger to enforce the state’s command. But the city did do one thing. It hired a land use attorney to conduct an exhaustive legal analysis of the case — both the history of coastal land ownership and that of the property in question — in order to determine the legal owner of the beach.

Presented to the city commission by attorney David Levin on November 1 of last year, the study concluded that the beach belongs “to the state of Florida to be held in the trust of all the people.”

Levin reasoned that since, at the time the state issued the deeds the property’s western boundary was not actually touching water, it didn’t grant Amico ownership of the beach.

The question of who owns the beach is further complicated by the fact that Sunset Beach is one of the most unstable stretches of sand on the Pinellas County coastline. Amico says Tropical Storm Debby took 40 feet of beach late last month.

If you go to Sunset Beach today, much of it looks gutted. There’s an exposed sandbar that wasn’t there before.

Even when the sun is shining, that beach is constantly eroding. Sunset Beach was reportedly the site of one of the first federal beach renourishment projects back in the ’60s. Those projects, funded by the county, state, and federal governments, involve dredging sand from designated offshore stores and pumping it back up onto the beach. Without such projects, nearly everything human-made thing you see along the Pinellas beaches would eventually crumble into the gulf.

And if the water does wash away part of your property? According to state law, what’s under the water no longer belongs to you. It belongs to the people of Florida.

An organization called Save Our Beaches fought this law all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court in 2010, but the court found in the state’s favor.

“If it erodes, you lose your beach,” says Tom Scherberger, a resident of Sunset Beach who has been watching the issue closely. (Scherberger, a former Tampa Bay Times editor, is married to Sunset Beach Civic Association president Andersen.)

Amico, however, points out that his 2009 settlement with the state, the one that yielded him a quitclaim deed to the property, predates the Supreme Court decision. Though experts say that a quitclaim deed isn’t quite as binding as a warranty deed, Amico says that the deed gives him rights to any land that builds up — or accretes. That, to him, means renourished beachfront.

Levin, the attorney hired by Treasure Island, responds, “Obviously, if the State had the benefit of knowing the outcome of the U.S. Supreme Court decision rendered in 2010, it may not have entered into the settlement agreement.”

If he wins his case, Amico says, it’s not like private beaches will start popping up all along Florida’s shores. They’ll have to fight just like he has.

To Andersen, Scherberger and others, the case very much does have statewide implications. Scherberger calls it a classic Florida story. He says the Florida Constitution spells it out pretty clearly in stating that the title to Florida’s beaches “is held by the state, by virtue of its sovereignty, in trust for all the people.” The law does, however, go on to say sale and private use of “such lands” can occur if they’re in the public interest. Sunset Beach residents would probably argue that Caddy’s being a private beach would not be in the public interest.

“Florida is a very fragile ecosystem,” Andersen says. “You can’t just let somebody go in and do whatever he wants.’”

Amico is confident that the court will rule in his favor, even though he doesn’t really expect a decision to come down for another two years.

Meanwhile, the question of who owns the beach remains one of the most important questions the state needs to ask itself. But if we wind up in the path of the wrong weather system, the question will be moot — because then the cherished stretch of sand known as Sunset Beach would belong to no one but the Gulf of Mexico.

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