Posted by Rick Civelli | 05.04.2012 | Conservation

Shifting Sands

If people can be considered trespassers on the beaches of Florida, is turtle persecution not far off? Apparently not. Juanita Schultz, an Englewood woman was recently fined and sentenced to community service for repeatedly removing the nest markers on the sand in front of her house and placing her beach chaise on top of a nest. Probably not a significant enough punishment for violating the Endangered Species Act, but she may represent the first of many beach-possessive cases.

Schultz’ recent bout with the law has brought to light a lesser known clause of Florida’s beachfront property laws. According to the state law, the part of the beachfront located above the mean high tide line marks the beginning of private property, if there is a property owner.And private owners have been increasing enforcement of people coming on “their” beach by posting trespassing signs, asking beach goers to leave, calling the police for enforcement, and even keeping their own private security guards. With 60% of Florida beaches listed as private, this raises the important issue of whether beaches can and should be owned.

Florida’s interpretation of property allocation runs contrary to the long help public trust doctrine. This requires the sea and tidal land to remain open to the public. The public trust doctrine has been expanded to include rivers, lakes, and many other natural resources that should be considered a public good. Practically every other state applies this doctrine to their beach access.

The sands that form beaches are highly transient. Barrier islands on the East Coast continue eroding landward, but these homeowners attempt to fight the natural forces by clamoring for renourishment or the construction of permanent, hardened structures, like groins and jetties.  However, it is not just these homeowners that pay for these projects. The entire states tax payers bear the financial burden, and then they are denied access to the very beach that they have helped shore up.

The beach that the property owners claim to own has long been the habitat for shore bird to hunt, ghost crabs burrow, horseshoe crabs to lay eggs, sea turtles to nest, and, yes, people to fish and recreate. Beaches should be open to all the public, since they pay to support both the beaches existence and those animals that live there.