BY SUSAN HANAFEE – A walk on the beach didn’t have the same meaning that it used to for some island residents and visitors this past season, as developers and homeowners took steps to keep the public away from their waterfront properties.
The addition of “private beach” signs, plus cameras and the posting of a security guard adjacent to the Hill Tide Estates development on the southern tip of the island rankled some nearby residents.
Hill Tide development adjoins the public beach by the Boca Grande Lighthouse.
“For many years my husband and I have walked around the island’s south end from Belcher Road around to the Charlotte Harbor side of the beach, and then into Boca Bay where we live. Recently, we’ve seen ‘No Trespassing’ signs go up from Hill Tide, including yellow barricade tape, and now what appears to be a guard! Since when is a public beach suddenly private?” a reader emailed the Boca Beacon.
Inquiries to Florida Power & Light Co., the previous owners of the property, plus state and county officials confirmed that the Hill Tide developer Seagate Development Group out of Fort Myers owns the beach next to its property down to the mean high water line.
As beach lovers in Florida know and the Boca Bay resident pointed out, the mean high water line changes almost daily. And walkers say that Hill Tide often places orange cones into the water to deter visitors from claiming any part of the beach in front of the development for their use.
D. F. Rugg of Battle Creek, Michigan, a frequent day-tripper to the island, was particularly concerned about the historic ship moorings that have now become a private walkway for Hill Tide residents.
“What a tragic loss for the public that these four historic structures were not constructed into a one-of-a-kind pier, which many forever could have enjoyed. Now a potential jewel has been lost to everyone,” he said in a letter to The Beacon.
Rugg blamed Lee County for a lack of leadership in preserving and reclaiming the old moorings for a broader public use. “In the end, it would have been a prize worth fighting for,” he said.
Representatives from Hill Tide were given numerous opportunities over several months to respond to questions about their beach access actions but did not.
Several homeowners on the north end of the island, in Charlotte County, also banded together recently to erect gates across paths traditionally used by neighbors with deeded beach access.
North-end homeowners who could once walk on several open paths to the beach are now limited to those closest to their homes. Several have complained that they have to climb over docks and through water to get to the beach.
“It’s not so easy for us older folks,” one lamented.
Although the beautiful and expansive beaches on the north end of the island are open to anyone, there is no public beach access parking in Charlotte County.
House Bill 631, signed into law in 2018 by then Governor Rick Scott, is believed to restrict access to Florida’s beaches, although there have been claims that it is confusing and subject to interpretation.
The law says that even though a beach has been used by the public in the past, it can be claimed as private property through a legal appeal that ends up superseding “customary use” protections.
Beach renourishment, paid for by tax dollars, also figures into the issue. Some believe that if there is beach renourishment in the area homeowners cannot enforce their property ownership to the mean high water line.
But Betsy Clayton, Lee County public information officer, said it is an individual matter. “It is not possible to make a blanket statement about a person’s property rights concerning access to the beach on any particular beachfront property without reviewing each renourishment program, the attendant documents for each renourishment project and the public records specific to a particular party.”
In other words, beach access can be confusing and controversial and is an issue The Beacon will be following.