Panel Discusses 'Who Owns Florida's Beaches?'

Inspired by an award-winning Sarasota Magazine story, a Sarasota Tiger Bay Club panel on Thursday discussed the complex legalities of where the public beach ends and where private ownership begins.

By Cooper Levey-Baker January 6, 2022

Siesta Key.

A Sarasota Tiger Bay Club panel that included Sarasota Magazine contributor Isaac Eger on Thursday discussed a topic of pressing interest for any Floridian: Who owns Florida's beaches?

Inspired by Eger's national award-winning 2020 story, the panel discussed the complex legalities of where the public beach ends and where private ownership begins. Conflict over the issue has intensified in recent years, with beachgoers being arrested for trespassing and private homeowners erecting warning signs and hiring private security officers to monitor the sand.

Much of the confusion arises over something called the Mean High Water Line, a 19-year high tide average that fluctuates because of natural factors and different surveying practices.

The Mean High Water Line "has to be one of the worst ways to delineate between public and private property," said Eger. "The coastline changes radically from storms, erosion and the construction of sea walls. Using the Mean High Water Line is inefficient and inscrutable. A police officer is not going to know where that line is."

Catherine Luckner, a board member with the Siesta Key Association, argued that Sarasota's rise as a global tourist destination has exacerbated the conflict, because the island is drawing more tourists and newcomers than ever before. She cited residents' complaints about parties and noise.

"I think many people are not aware that beaches can be owned," said Luckner. "Because there is such good public access, it's not clear that what they're walking on could be private property."

Eger countered by arguing that many of the homeowners staking claims to ownership of the beach are also new to the area, and may be unaware of how members of the public have used the beach for generations. Panelist John McCarthy, a historian and vice president for Marie Selby Botanical Gardens' Historic Spanish Point, pointed out that Shell Road Beach, an area that has become a flashpoint in the debate over beaches, was once Siesta Key's main bathing beach.

"We do have people who are being rude on the beach," said Eger. "But because of a few bad apples, we're punishing people who have been enjoying these beaches forever."

You can watch the entire panel here:

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