Florida is facing a beach crisis. More people are moving to our state, and while only a small fraction can afford to live by the beach, everyone wants access to it. The fight between what is public and what is private is only intensifying. Earlier this month, police officers in Monroe County arrested a couple who beat and bloodied a snorkeler because he swam near their beachfront property.
In Florida, 60 percent of the entire coastline is privately owned, but in Sarasota County, one of the main battlegrounds in the beach privatization push, 80 percent of the coastline is in the hands of individual property owners.
Little has been done by our local government and elected officials to address the conflict between property owners and beachgoers. The last time the Sarasota County Commission addressed the issue was when commissioners approved a 2021 ordinance that allowed private property owners to place signs on their property without requiring a permit. There’s talk of buying more beach for the public, but the asking prices are exorbitant—and meanwhile, Sarasota residents are kicked off the beach by law enforcement officers and private security guards hired by property owners.
We wanted to know what candidates in the ongoing Sarasota County Commission races would do to address this problem. All agree that public beach access is an important issue, but emphasize different solutions. Here's what they had to say:
For Atkins, education is the solution. “The reality is, nobody has a private beach up to the mean high water line,” says Atkins. “But some [private property owners] don’t understand that when it comes to being in front of their properties.”
Atkins wants to help private property owners understand their rights, but he also believes that it’s not just the property owners who need a better understanding; it’s also the responsibility of the public. “The public needs to understand that they need to respect the private property owners and they need to not do anything that is not appropriate in front of their property," he says. "The public can be in the water, and they can be in the sand up to the mean high water line."
There are problems with this solution. There are two laws with two different definitions about where the public can and cannot walk. Customary use law, if applied, allows the public to access any public beach with a history of recreational use. But the de facto law, which state and local law enforcement are applying, uses the mean high water line—the roughly 19-year average of high tides along set points on Florida’s coastline—as the boundary between private and public coastal property. The problem with using the line is that there is no way for the public or law enforcement to know precisely where this line is because it changes over time. This often leads to conflict between the public, private landowners and police. I asked Atkins how he might address this as county commissioner.
“First thing, I would not let any private property owners rope off or hinder the public access to the beach,” he says. “That’s just disrespectful.” Atkins again emphasizes education as a solution to the problem. “Information and cooperation is required to rectify the problem,” he says. “But it’s only a couple places where somebody that didn’t know that they were doing something wrong did it wrongly, and didn’t expect to be corrected.”
Atkins also wants to make sure deputies are educated. “Those who are patrolling the waterfronts should receive special training so that they will understand what is the reality, not necessarily what the homeowners think is the reality," he says.
What about buying more beach for the public? Atkins didn’t seem to think that was necessary.
“In Sarasota, what we have to do is start using all of our beachfront property,” he says. "I think we have enough beach right now, but we have problems with access to them. We have to spread our populations out and tell the world that Siesta Key is not the only beach in Sarasota. We’ve got some fine beaches all the way to North Port and all the way to Longboat Key. If we invite people to all of our beaches, we’d be able to spread out the intensity of the use.”
Brody is most concerned with the appearances of our beaches. He wants to be diplomatic, to work with property owners and make sure that our public beaches remain accessible. He doesn't want them marked with barriers, fences or signs. “That stuff just looks so bad,” he says. “It really reflects poorly on the community and makes us look extremely exclusionary for people visiting or who live here and are coming to the beach. That just doesn’t sit well with me.”
The county commission has the constitutional power to apply the customary use doctrine to its beaches. Would Brody consider implementing this on any of Sarasota’s beaches, specifically Beach Access #1—otherwise known as Shell Road Beach on Siesta Key, where many of the conflicts between the public and private property owners have occurred?
“Yes, I would,” Brody says. “I mean, I’d have to be fully informed on the legal aspects of it and what it entails, but just from a 30,000-foot view, Shell Beach has always been public.” Brody says he grew up visiting Shell Road Beach, so he knows that it has traditionally been used.
Brody also wants to add more public areas around the county’s coastline. “I want to add additional boat ramps,” he says. “We have issues with our charter boat captains looking for places to launch and conduct their business. A dog beach is something I would really like to explore. Our residents have to go all the way down to Venice for a dog beach.”
As for what he can do as a county commissioner to address the way the law is enforced, Brody believes that while he can have a voice, the way the beach is governed isn’t up to local government. "The sheriff is an independently elected office [...] and the police are trying to follow the law as they interpret it,” he says. “It’s our job to make the rules clear enough and sensible so that you don’t have those points of conflict. I don't think that that’s all within the county’s purview. Some of that responsibility rests with the legislature.”
So what can the county do? Brody says anything that doesn’t conflict with state laws. “I would fight for the public’s access to traditionally public parts of the beach, while respecting the fact that some people do have residences they’ve purchased for good money,” he says. He emphasizes that he would regulate “how people provide notice that it’s their property.” He doesn’t like having chain link fences, ropes or signs on the beach. “I just think that looks tacky," he says.
Cosentino says the “creeping privatization of public lands” is a big issue for him. He thinks the remedy to our beach problems is simple: Existing laws already favor the public’s right to the beach. We just don’t have a local government willing to fight on behalf of the people.
“I have an entire comprehensive plan to make the beaches public at minimal cost to the taxpayer,” says Cosentino. He points to a portion of our previous county code of ordinances. “The very first paragraph of Ch. 90 grants the county the power of eminent domain, to buy any beach land,” he says. “The county should be using its power of eminent domain and it should be buying all of the vacant beach parcels on Siesta Key all the way to public beach access #2.”
Plus, he believes the county could buy the property on the cheap, as long as elected officials don’t make backroom handshake deals with a handful of private property owners. “We’ve got single moms out here choosing between health care, food and rent, and you’re paying a guy $4 million for land the property appraiser says is worth $100,000?" he says. "That’s beyond stupid. That’s beyond malfeasance. That’s criminal misuse of public funds.”
Cosentino says it would be easy to prove the customary use of Shell Road Beach. He claims to have spoken to all the previous property owners on Shell Road over the past 40 years and says they are willing to sign affidavits that the public has customary use of that land. “There’s no reason for the county to spend any money to buy it since the public already has right to use it,” he says.
As for issues regarding the mean high water line, Cosentino says that state courts have already ruled in favor of the public on certain beaches. He points to the 1973 Supreme Court Case United States Steel Corp. v. Save Sand Key, Inc. “When the beach gets renourished, the private property owners can’t kick anyone out from the old mean high water line,” he says. The Sand Key case established that beaches that have been renourished largely belong to the public. “Homeowners fight beach renourishment because they didn’t want all that public in ‘their' backyard,” says Cosentino. “They like the small beach. This is what’s going on on Casey Key. But it’s been renourished. These people are kicking people off what they call their private property that actually isn’t their property, so they’re full of crap, too.”
The main issue, according to Cosentino, is that "we have a county government acting on behalf of the one 10th of 1 percent of people fortunate enough to own beach property—a government not enforcing the rule of law.” If elected county commissioner, Cosentino says he will be the “knowledgeable, squeaky wheel that will not be greased.”
“Instead of litigating to break the law on behalf of the waterfront owners, we are going to litigate on behalf of the public to curtail the unlawfulness of the waterfront property owners," he says.
Ramirez is more sympathetic to private property owners. In her mind, the main issue our beaches face is a new kind of culture. “In the past 10 years, ever since [Siesta Key Beach] got No. 1 beach, ever since we had that TV show, we’ve seen a change in the type of tourist who comes here,” says Ramirez. “Ten years ago, we didn’t have shootings, stabbings and a lot of theft. Now we do. We have to deal with that.”
Ramirez believes the change has happened because we have larger crowds of young people who behave differently. “We used to have families and people from Canada and snowbirds who were very respectful," she says. "It wasn’t as crazy as it is now.” She doesn’t blame beachfront property owners who want to protect their homes. “We’ve got these people trashing places, utilizing people’s private property, including their grills, outdoor showers, so if someone comes onto your property and does damage, you would be very protective," she says.
She proposes two solutions to our beach crisis. The first is more law enforcement. “The [law enforcement officers] that are already out here are great, but I think we need more of a presence,” she says. “I know that it is not the wish of Visit Sarasota County [the county’s official tourism marketing entity] to have a perception of too much law enforcement, but I think we really need that visibility and it will cut down on some of the crime we are seeing out here.”
Her second solution is to buy more beach property when it becomes available. “The more the merrier,” says Ramirez. “If someone is willing to sell, we should find the money and that way we have more public beach access.”
Cost is a major issue. “We need more property, but not to the extent that some people want to sell it for,” she says. “Mike Holderness, for example [...] he bought a piece of property for $20,000, and it’s an unbuildable lot, and then wanted to sell it [to the county] for $4 million. It’s way overpriced for an unbuildable lot. I believe we can work something out with him.”
Ramirez supports the ordinance allowing property owners to put up signs on the beach. She says that because they were moveable and not permanent, they wouldn’t hurt sea turtles, but she agrees that it is not a perfect solution. “Property owners have to be on the honor system,” she says. “They can’t put it all the way to the water.” She recalls when the Hyatt on Siesta was first built. The hotel put chairs and kayaks all the way to the water’s edge and completely blocked the public from the beach. “That was wrong,” says Ramirez.
Smith believes that it is the role of the county to purchase more beach. “Sarasota County needs to work with the private beach owners, most likely through the eminent domain process, and come to a fair price and buy up some of these lots that are unbuildable, that are now being accessed by folks, visitors and residents,” says Smith. “The county needs to consolidate these private lands and make them public."
He also wants to add lifeguards to these already popular areas of the beach. “There’s no supervision at all on beach accesses and on these other beaches," he says. "So much money is generated from beachgoers—why we don’t have expanded lifeguards? It just doesn’t make any sense to me.”
Smith agrees that there is less access to beaches today than when he grew up here in the ’60s. “When I was a kid, the beach and Siesta Key just weren’t as crowded," he says. "Over the years, the popularity has exploded. The rental industry has just gone crazy on Siesta. According to Census data, our permanent resident population has gone down since 2000. We have fewer full-time residents and more visitors.”
According to Smith, state law says that an individual should be able to walk the entire waterfront unabated. “We can’t keep people from legally walking on the beach,” he says. “That’s just a God-given right.” Smith believes confusion over the location of the mean high water line could be solved if that line is marked. “We don't need to rope it off,” he says. Instead, he believes we could find an ecological solution. “A storm will wash a lot of things away, so it has to be made out of bamboo or something that’s not going to kill any wildlife.”
But who will survey the surveyor? One of the issues we face in Sarasota is private property owners wrongfully kicking people off the beach. Smith acknowledges that without legal precedent, public access to beach exists in a gray area. “We need to take one of these cases to court and get a judgment,” he says. “That’s the thing to do. Maybe the property owners don’t want it to go that far, so they can keep it loose and just keep intimidating people.”
Smith points out that he is endorsed by Sarasota County Sheriff Kurt Hoffman. “I’d be happy to meet with Sheriff Hoffman to find a remedy that everyone will accept,” he says. “And in most cases, when you have a situation like this, not everyone is going to be happy, which means you’ve found the right thing.”
Hawkins believes the issue can be resolved through clarification.
“The whole thing's a mess,” says Hawkins. “Wasn’t it Gov. Rick Scott who came out with a ruling that gave more rights than before?” I explain to him that in 2018, the Florida Legislature passed a bill that Gov. Scott signed into law that reversed the process of customary use. This means that today, instead of private property owners being required to prove customary use, the onus is now on the public.
“Well, I would want to make a priority out of going into [understanding customary use law] and having it best explained to me as anybody possibly could and having someone sitting with me that could help me understand what I didn’t understand,” says Hawkins.
Hawkins says the issue has never been “cut and dry” and that, as county commissioner, he would favor a rule that would help the sheriff's office and city police better enforce beach laws. “Even though they say you can walk on the wet sand, there are people on Shell Road Beach who say, 'You can’t walk on wet sand; that’s my property,' and they put stakes out into the water,” he says. “I believe law enforcement would really appreciate our commission coming out with a rule saying, 'This is how we are interpreting the rule,' and letting them enforce that.”
Still, Hawkins is a big supporter of private property rights. “People's property rights are really, really important to me,” he says. “If you have a house, you have certain rights and things you can do with your property. Now, your neighbor might not like some of the things you are doing with your lot, but as long as you are within the guidelines and doing it the right way, then you’re protected. And that’s the way it’s supposed to be.”
Editor's note: Neunder did respond to a request for comment.
For Kuether, who is running unopposed in the primary, more surveillance would alleviate the tension between private land owners and the public, which he says is complicated by the historical memory of public access on beaches that have always been private. “Historically, the public has always been given access to these private beaches,” he says. “But now, because of the influx of tourists who are mistreating the area when they’re down here—whether it's crime or a massive amount of people on a small part of beach—private landlords are feeling the need to rope it off.”
Rather than rope off beaches, he says the solution is for the county commission to require hotels and other high-density property owners to provide more surveillance—"whether that is beach officials policing where the entry is from where public land is into private land, or giving lifeguards better access to the police and the sheriff to get people out to the beach faster,” Kuether says. “I would also like to see the county require a certain kind of blocking-off system. I do not want to see the private landlords coming up with their own ropes or fences in order to block off private land. I would rather require them to use the same structure and same signage to make that clear and for it to be environmentally friendly and visually appealing."
Kuether says his end goal is to make private land owners feel more comfortable so that they start letting well-behaved beachgoers walk along the beach. “If people can be a good neighbor and say, ‘You know what, I don’t mind if you walk across my land looking for seashells or go for an evening stroll while the sun sets across my land, because you’re not doing anything illegal and you’re not bothering me in any way,’ that would be a step in the right direction.”