Who owns the beach?

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

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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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