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Who really owns beachfront property?

By Henry Lamb
web posted March 26, 2007

Few places in the world offer a more spectacular view than the Gulf of Mexico, seen from the top floor of a beachfront condominium in Naples, Florida.    That's why - we'll call him Charlie - chose to live in this condo, three miles north of the Naples pier.

It was a beautiful March day, when Charlie noticed a county truck with four workers driving on the beach in front of his condo.   The workers were driving stakes into the ground.  Charlie, and other residents of the building, asked the workers not to drive the truck onto their private property, and not to put stakes into the ground.  The workers said they were identifying where sea oats, an endangered species, would be planted.

Charlie and the other residents, again, asked the workers to get off their private property.  Presently, another county truck arrived, and the project manager, an employee of  Collier County, emerged and,  according to Charlie, announced that the property in question was "...owned by the federal government."

"He drove right past the stakes, right up past our lawn furniture, right into our yard," Charlie said.

The property owners again asked the county employees to leave.   The project manager insisted that the land did not belong to the property owners, that he and the other employees could go where, and do whatever they wished, and the property owners were powerless to stop them. 

The property owners threatened to call the police if the county employees did not leave the private property.  The project manager told the property owners to "..go ahead and call the police."  It took two calls, and about fifteen minutes for a lone officer to arrive on the scene.  Charlie told the officer that the county employees were trespassing, and that he wanted to press charges against them for not leaving when requested to do so.

The officer said not a word, but walked over to the county employee, who told the officer that the property owners had "verbally assaulted" him, and that they should be arrested.  With that, Charlie saw that the officer had no interest in protecting the property owners, and decided the best course of action would be to leave the scene, before the confrontation became physical.

The conflict over who owns beachfront land is complex, and there is wide disagreement.  According to the property owners, the project manager said that the entire area belonged to the federal government,.  Then he said that the county was "taking" the beachfront, and that the property owners no longer owned the land all the way to the water.  

Camden Smith, of Collier County's Costal Zone Management Department, confirmed that beachfront property owners own to the "mean high tide line."  But that doesn't mean that the owners can use the land they own all the way to the mean high tide line.  There is also something called a "Coastal Construction Setback," which Smith could define only as a federal-state-local law that restricted the owners' use of the land in the setback area.  Neither the width, nor the authority for the Coastal Construction Setback, had been defined by press time.

What is clear is the fact that the landowner's use of the land is restricted without compensation, and without any reduction in the tax rate paid to the county.   When The Nature Conservancy, and others designate land for conservation purposes, and restrict the use of such land, the tax rate is most often reduced.  Not so for beach front landowners.

Conflict between the government and private property owners is nothing new in Collier County.
Most of the county is already owned by the federal government as  part of the Everglades, and the county's comprehensive plan arbitrarily designates vast areas of the remaining private property as restricted use, or where no development is permitted. 

Jesse Hardy became a national property rights hero when he refused to sell his Collier County Land to the state in the wake of the Everglades Restoration project.   After years of legal battles, he finally agreed to sell, rather than to fight the eminent domain power of the Governor.

City dwellers had little concern about property rights of the rural landowners, and many thought Jesse was just being stubborn when he refused to sell his land.  Now, the power of government to abuse private property in the city, as well as in the county, is affecting folks who have the resources to fight back.

The 33 owners of the property where Charlie lives are organizing, and calling on their attorney to develop a response to the county government.  Up and down the beach, property owners are doing the same thing.   Property owners are more than upset about the county announcing that it will plant an endangered species on land which they think they own, and on which they pay exorbitant taxes. 

An endangered species on private property means that the land can be designated as "critical habitat," and the owner loses all control over the use of the land.  Collier county government is heavily influenced by a strong environmental lobby.  Some of the supporters of these environmental organizations live along the beach that is now being effectively seized by the enforcers of environmental regulations. 

Perhaps the wealthy beachfront residents will be able to convince local politicians that private property is not a public commodity; the rural residents have surely not had much success. ESR

Henry Lamb is the executive vice president of the Environmental Conservation Organization (ECO), and chairman of Sovereignty International.


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