The Salt Life: Access (denied) to the Sun Coast Beaches (by Jack)

According to Trip Advisor, Florida and Hawaii have 17 of the top 25 beaches in America, with Florida sporting 10 and Hawaii trailing with 7. Our own Siesta Key beach is 3rd in the latest rankings, although it has come in first in rankings in the not so distant past. Anyone who has spent any amount of time at either Siesta or Lido can understand why our beaches rank high. While the amenities are good and getting better, it’s the incredible powder-sugar-like sand (actually quartz) that makes them unique. Hanging out at these beaches means never having to burn your feet.

But Hawaii does have us beat on one important beach characteristic—all beaches in Hawaii are open to the public (the exceptions are the beaches that are owned by the federal government and used by the military). What’s more, you will actually find numerous public access points on the islands with parking that allow you to actually get to those beaches. How do they do that, you ask? Simple. The local government requires that developers provide not just beach access points, but parking areas as well. They make it convenient for the public to be able to get to the public beaches.

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What Hawaii embraces is not just the concept of a public beach, but the concept of shared space–an understanding that underpins the National Park System (that celebrates its 100th anniversary this summer). No one, even if they have the means to pay for it, has a right to own natural treasures or to deny others access to them. In putting this philosophy into practice, Hawaii has determined that beaches are public lands to be shared by all and therefore, the public must have access to them.

Needless to say, things are different in the Sunshine State. Florida has about 1,200 miles of beaches and of those 60 percent are private, and others which are technically public are, for all intents and purposes, private. The rules defining what is public and what is private are a little tricky. Even where beaches are legally public the public part of the beaches is defined as the “foreshore region,” that part of the beach that falls between the mean high and low water lines. But what it really boils down to is that local governments have allowed developers and homeowners to exclude the public from having access to the dry sand of the beach.

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Although Florida law requires the state to ensure “the public’s right to reasonable access to beaches” in many places it is difficult to actually find and use that access. Unfortunately, the Sun Coast is no exception to the privatization pattern. For example, you can drive for more than 5 miles on Longboat Key and not find any public access to the beautiful Gulf beach (I assume it’s beautiful, I can’t get to it to see). Not all that atypical of the strategy that homeowners and developers use is the lovely little access point on Anna Maria that is an unmarked three-foot wide path with no parking that technically qualifies as “public access.” It’s one of those hidden treasures. About as easy to find as the Treasure of Sierra Madre!

Sarasota’s most recent beach-front controversy involves the battle over a 230 foot public right-of-way along Beach Road on Siesta Key. The Sarasota County Commissioners recently voted to “vacate” the road and, in effect, give it to three local property owners who want to then demolish their rental properties and build bigger condos that extend closer to the beach line. In exchange the Commissioners insist that a 60-foot-wide right-of-way will be guaranteed. But local resident Mike Cosentino isn’t buying it. He has filed a lawsuit against the county saying that the commissioners violated their own comprehensive plan. He wants them to follow through with a 2013 plan that would improve, reinforce and preserve the road, and he is rallying Sarasota County citizens to sign a petition that would forbid local governments from vacating or selling waterfront rights of way. (Go to: reopenbeachroad.com)

I support his cause, but my guess is that in a few years this controversy will be moot (maybe even before the lawsuit has run its course). As was pointed out in a recent New York Times article, climate change is already beginning to inundate beach roads and parts of some beach communities in the United States. Climate change—a concept which is taboo in Governor Scott’s Florida—has arrived! If those property owners on Beach Road were smart they would be building houseboats.

 

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