Beach access provides an interesting line of questioning
Collier County commissioners want to draw a line in the sand. Not a figurative line in the sand with the school board over money for school deputies or with the PACE providers over home improvement loans.
But a literal line in the sand.
One that would show beachgoers where they’re allowed to be, beachfront property owners where they’re allowed to shoo people off and law enforcement whose side to take when those disputes occur.
On Tuesday, commissioners agreed to have the county staff prepare a report on the erosion control line, an invisible delineation of public and private property.
The move comes amid an increasing number of confrontations between property owners, including beachfront hotels and condominiums, and the beachgoing public.
Longstanding law in Florida is that the beach is public only up to the high tide line with the beach landward of that line the property of the inland owner.
But that rule goes out the window in places where there has been long-established public access to the beach, known as customary use.
The rules also differ in places where taxpayer funds have been used to renourish the beach. The new sand is open to the public. That’s what the erosion control line is supposed to mark.
Those two exceptions cover almost all of the beach in Collier County, meaning the high-water line is rarely relevant.
But since tides aren’t precise, sand is always shifting and the default position is to keep the beach free of obtrusive signage, it’s often difficult to tell exactly where the private beach ends and the public beach begins.
A 2018 beach access law championed by Sen. Kathleen Passidomo did little to clarify the situation. Passidomo insists the law simply codified the way local governments go about claiming access through customary use, but critics maintain it bolsters property owners’ ability to kick the public off the beach.
Commissioner Burt Saunders brought the subject up near the end of Tuesday’s meeting, after the approval of a $5.5 million beach renourishment project.
“When we do these beach projects, that changes the erosion control line,” Saunders said. “I don’t know where the erosion control line is. What we need to do is put some markings in where the erosion control line is so that everyone knows.”
Chairman Bill McDaniel said he’s seen videos on social media of sheriff’s deputies shooing people from the beach, telling them the high tide line is the effective boundary when that isn’t always the case.
“There are two clearly delineated lines on the beach that any Yankee from Pennsylvania can see. One’s your weed line and one’s where the water is. Those are really the only two a regular Joe can see,” McDaniel said.
Assistant County Manager Nick Casalanguida cautioned commissioners that they’re dealing with a question that can cut both ways.
Marking the erosion control line could mean the public loses access to areas where they’ve previously enjoyed it. “Sometimes people go landward of the erosion control line and people (property owners) don’t say anything,” he said.
Commissioners asked Coastal Zone Manager Gary McAlpin to come back in the fall with a presentation explaining the erosion control line and where it falls.
“Senator Passidomo talked about the erosion control line as if everyone knows where it is. There’s only a few of us that do. I would welcome a presentation in that regard,” McDaniel said.