Who owns the beach?

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

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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.

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