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Beach neighbors feud over public access to shoreline

Published:   |   Updated: November 27, 2013 at 12:53 PM

CLEARWATER — Residents in north Clearwater Beach asked the city last week to “draw a line in the sand” to help resolve a neighborhood dispute over the transition between private property and public beach.
Wendy Hutkin, president of the Clearwater Beach Association that represents the Mandalay subdivision, sought city council support Nov. 20 to determine whether homeowners in Carlouel have the legal right to rope off areas of the beach near the shoreline of the Gulf of Mexico.
North Clearwater Beach is comprised of two subdivisions — Mandalay and Carlouel. Each has its own neighborhood association.
The exclusive Carlouel area consists of about 83 households and lies on the northernmost point of the island, while just to the south is Mandalay, comprised of 836 households, according to county property records. Hutkin told the council that the beach association has a membership of about 100 households.
If homeowners do have the right to rope off sections of the beach, Hutkin said, would the council and city staff regulate the store-bought signs and ropes used?
“They are not uniform,” she said. “They are unattractive, and it is unwelcoming to the beach tourists and residents.”
City Attorney Pam Akin told the council that the city doesn't own the stretch of beach near Carlouel Yacht Club, where three homeowners have roped off their backyards. Therefore, the private property ownership line is subject to interpretation of the subdivision plat.
“The city does not have a legal interest in that area of the beach,” she said. “The subdivision may. The individual property owners may. But we don't.”
Akin also said the city doesn't consider the areas sectioned off with rope as fencing. Therefore, a city permit isn't required for installation.
However, she suggested that city planning staff research whether the posts and signs should be regulated for uniformity.
Vice Mayor Paul Gibson surmised, “This is essentially a squabble between the association and the individual landowners.”
 “Ultimately,” Akin replied, “it will get resolved in court.”
None of the three homeowners, who allegedly roped off their backyards, spoke during the council meeting.
Property rights along the water — known as littoral ownership, which means the owner of land adjacent to the shore — long have been a complicated matter for Florida and other coastal states. The dividing line traditionally has been the mean high water line, a flexible border that depends on shifting sands and tides, according to Florida law.
Scott Suarez, a Mandalay resident at 834 Eldorado Ave., told the council that he and four neighbors plan to rope off their backyards by next summer.
He also said that his “recorded survey shows that my property extends to the mean water line.”
“We allow the public to walk across our backyard,” he said. “I'm sure you wouldn't be well-enthused about thousands of people walking in your backyard.”
Suarez told the council of a number of unpleasant incidents with beachgoers, including a time his wife was cursed “in front of my children” and how “inappropriate … sexual things” have been left behind.
“We're tired of it,” he said.
Steve Samaha, of 1006 Eldorado Ave., urged the city to help mediate between the two neighborhood groups.
“The beach is sort of the goose that laid the golden egg in Clearwater,” said Samaha, who bought his Carlouel home in 2010. “Everyone has an interest in preserving and maintaining it for the benefit of the entire community.
“This issue is complicated … but litigation really doesn't do anyone any good.”
Because the issue was raised during a segment of the meeting when citizens can address items not on the agenda, the council will continue the discussion during a work session in December.


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