By Jane Bartnett
Who owns Florida’s beaches? That was the question that the non-partisan Sarasota Tiger Bay Club tackled in mid-January during the group’s monthly luncheon meeting at Michael’s on East.
Kevin Cooper, Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium vice- president for communications and strategic initiatives, served as moderator of the panel that featured Catherine Luckner, Siesta Key Association president; John McCarthy, historian and vice-president of Marie Selby Botanical Garden’s Historic Spanish Point; and Isaac Eger, a Sarasota writer and public beach advocate.
The issue has become increasingly controversial, dividing waterfront land owners from those who believe that the beaches of Siesta Key and all the coastal areas of the state should be open to everyone. In Florida, Eger reported, 80% of the coastline is privately owned, including 60% in Sarasota County.
The questions of not only who owns the beaches but also who can access those sandy shores have been argued for centuries. The Romans, McCarthy noted, viewed all beaches as public domain. Currently, Hawaii, North Carolina, and Texas are among the few states that allow public access to the sandy beach in front of a private property.
Here in the Sunshine State, according to Eger, public access is definitely not the case. Citing the controversial 2018 Florida Statute 163.035 that then-Gov. Rick Scott signed into law, known as the “Establishment of Recreational Customary Use” bill, Eger said that the legislation greatly diminished the ability of local governments to provide the public the right to area beaches. The rights of private property owners to establish ownership of beachfront property, he advised, has increased dramatically since the bill went into effect.
“It’s all about the money,” said Luckner, speaking to the issue of public access and privately owned Siesta Key beaches. Confusion about public access, she noted, could have a negative impact on tourism.
“We are global now. We have people from around the world and cultures have different ideas about beach usage. These issues are going to be a clash of tourism, which benefits us economically. We have to find a way to balance it,” she said.
In late 2021, private land owners gained more strength when Sarasota County passed an ordinance that allows owners of private property to post no trespassing signs on their beaches without a permit. The only answer to allowing more public access to the Siesta Key beaches and to beaches throughout the state, Eger said, is to acquire more public beach property.
Discussing the rights of waterfront property owners who in some cases have gone so far as to plant signs in the sand and rope off portions of the beach in front of their homes, Eger cited Siesta Key’s Shell Road, also known as Siesta Key Beach Access 1, as a beach that has been a source of controversy.
Better communication, Luckner noted, can improve relations between private beachfront land owners and visitors.
“We need to talk more to our tourists about what beaches are public and private,” she said.
Luckner praised the efforts of Visit Sarasota, the county’s tourism board, citing the organization’s campaign that promotes Sarasota County’s numerous public beaches found throughout the county. She noted that the Siesta Key Association and other local groups are working to increase communication within the community.
Public beach access, Luckner said, goes beyond allowing visitors enjoying a few hours on the sand. She said that private property owners face downsides that include instances of having to confront illegal activity and times when visitors leave trash and debris behind that the owner must clean up.
“The county doesn’t clean up those private beaches,” she said, recalling that when red tide was an issue, condominium owners in her building were responsible for cleaning up the many dead fish that landed on the shoreline.
As the topic turned to the mean highwater line, long accepted as the basis for determining where public land begins and private land ends, Eger stated that a major change may be coming shortly.
“In 2025, the NOAA (National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration) will come out with new data,” he said. “The lines that were used in demarcating private property could potentially be null and void because they no longer adhere to the knee-high water line. Expect it will be significantly in-shore,” he said. “The end result could mean a new highwater line.”
NOAA’s Center for Operational Oceanographic Products and Services is conducting the effort known as the National Tidal Datum Epoch. The process, the NOAA reports, “needs to be regularly revised to account for long-term effects of land movement, sea level rise, and changes in tidal constituents.”
When a question was raised about the use of public funds for beach refurbishment, Luckner said “Beaches that were private and receive sand from public monies become public. Once the funds are placed and you accept the sand, there is a public use access.”
The session came to a close as all three panelists agreed that protecting Florida’s beaches is everyone’s responsibility. Stressing the importance of maintaining Siesta Key and other west coast beaches, McCarthy said “We must work together and when we do, good things happen. If we can take care of the beaches for ourselves, it will be there for the sea turtles, for the endangered birds. Shorelines equals life.”