The statute, which went into effect July 1, says local governments must get a judge’s approval to enforce a rare “customary use” law that refers to the general right of the public to use dry sand areas in Florida for recreation.
Sen. Kathleen Passidomo, R-Naples, who sponsored the Senate version of the bill, said it simply spells out a process for municipalities to follow to keep beaches open to the public rather than making up their own rules when a private beach owner wants to restrict access.
But the law has caused widespread confusion and angst, forcing Gov. Rick Scott to issue an executive order urging state attorneys “to protect Floridians’ constitutional rights to beach access” and doing one thing opponents feared most — emboldening private beach owners to cut off the public.
Nancy Sweeney, who owns a condominium on the west side of Singer Island’s Ocean Drive, said since 1996 she has used a well-worn path between Marriott’s Oceana Palms hotel and the under-construction Amrit Ocean Resort to get to the beach.
Property records show there is a 99-year lease on a 7.5-foot-wide easement for public beach access, but whether the beach is open to the public once people get there is less clear.
“One of my neighbors went down the access path on the Fourth of July and were told they couldn’t put their chairs on the beach anywhere,” Sweeney said. “People are concerned, when we get to the end of the path, is that it?”
A message left for the general manager of Oceana was not returned Thursday.
North of the Oceana Palms is the Oceantree Condominium, which had signs planted in the sand Thursday marking the south and north ends of its beach property that read “Oceantree Residents Only.”
Both the general manager for Oceantree and its board of director’s chairman refused comment for this story.
To the north of Oceantree is another 7.5-foot-wide path that is private property, but the condominium documents for Oceantree show it is to be open to the public.
That’s the path Daniel Koivula walked down Thursday to reach the beach. Koivula, whose family has owned a unit in the Sugar Sands condominium on the west side of Ocean Drive since it was built in 1974, sat just outside the Oceantree’s signs.
“I’ve been here all week and no one has told me to move,” said Koivula, who is visiting from Canada. “Honestly, if they did, I don’t know how I would react to that. Why would they be upset if some Sugar Sand people sat there?”
Owners of private beaches are entitled to the sand on the landward side of the mean high tide line, while the public maintains access seaward of the mean high tide line.
Roger Amidon, general manager of the Palm Beach Marriott Singer Island, said there is a deeded right-of-way next to his resort for the people to access the beach, but the beach itself is reserved for Marriott guests only.
Amidon said he doesn’t stop people from walking through the Marriott’s beach to get to the public Ocean Reef Park north of the Marriott, but they are not allowed to stay.
“We want our tourists and locals to enjoy the shoreline, but we are preserving the privacy of our beach for our guests who are paying in excess of $1,000 a night during season to stay here,” Amidon said. “Even before this law went into effect we would have some local residents come and step on our beach and we’d have to say, ‘We’re sorry but this is private.’”
People can access private beaches; they just need court approval
On wide beaches the public use is typically not a problem, as there’s plenty of room for everyone and people aren’t sitting right up against a private owner’s home. But on beaches that aren’t regularly re-nourished, or where there are many public access points with parking that offers an easy path to private beaches, it’s become a concern, Passidomo said.
“This law is a process law that gives local governments the tools they need to expand public beach access where, before, it was the wild west, where lawsuits were flying,” Passidomo said. “If the public wants to access a private beach, they can do so, as long as the court approves it.”
Passidomo’s bill, SB 804, which merged with House Bill 631, passed 29 to 7 in the Senate and 95 to 17 in the House. Scott signed it in March.
Palm Beach County has had at least one past dispute that left a private beach roped off. In 2015, residents at the Palm Worth condo building north of Kreusler Park put down yellow rope outlining the condo’s private beach during an easement dispute. Condo owners also complained of homeless people camping near the dunes, kids playing soccer on the beach, fishermen, dogs, trash and alcohol in their beach area.
‘Someone is going to get very angry’
“This is probably going to end up in court with people on the west side of Ocean Drive claiming customary use of the beach, while the people on the east will say ‘No, no, no, we own this land, it’s our private property and they can’t come over,’” said Riviera Beach City Councilwoman Julia Botel, who represents Singer Island.
Botel held a community meeting Thursday to discuss the issue. She said she is setting up an online form so residents can specify what part of the beach they use in case the city goes to court.
“My concern is it’s going to get confrontational,” Sweeney said. “Someone is going to get very angry over the fact they can’t use something they have been using for 30 years.”