Former Naples Police Chief Gary Young recalls writing a ticket to a fellow driving recklessly in a Jeep.
“We gave him a ticket for speeding on Gulf Street and it held up,” Young, now 81, recalled.
Not much of an anecdote, until Young explains that Gulf Street wasn’t really a street at all. It was the Naples beach.
Early plat maps of Naples dating back more than 80 years show a public street west of the homes on Gulf Shore Boulevard.
In the 1960s and 1970s, when Young was with the NPD, it was common for beachfront property owners to call the cops to have them chase sunbathers off “their” beach.
It was just as common for the cops to point to the existence of Gulf Street, which was marked on a map that hung in the police station.
“Most of them had been told, when they bought their lots, their property ran all the way down to the water. They were very disappointed when it didn’t,” Young said.
Stories, maps and old photos may be the key to preserving public access to Naples’ and Collier County’s signature tourism draw.
On Wednesday, the City Council passed an ordinance intended to bolster public access to the beach, but even City Attorney Robert Pritt acknowledged it’s no guarantee a Gulf-front property owner won’t stake a claim to more of the beach.
At the root of the matter is the premise that waterfront owners own the sand down to the high tide line, which means at high tide there would be no public beach.
Offsetting that claim is the concept of “customary use.” If someone can show that the public has been using the dry sand portion of the beach over a period of years, it is considered public, under the customary-use doctrine.
Until now, a city council or county commission could declare an area to be in the customary-use category. A new state law to take effect July 1 says that only a court, not an elected council or commission, can make that determination.
State Sen. Kathleen Passidomo, a Naples resident who sponsored the bill, argues that declaring part of the beach to be public under customary use is like declaring a piece of inland property is needed for a new road. The government might have a legitimate need for the property, but a judge, not a political body, should be the one weighing the evidence and making the determination, she wrote in an April guest editorial in the Naples Daily News.
Unlike the eminent domain process used for roads and other public needs, the government does not have to pay property owners for land taken through customary use.
That’s because, under English common law, the customary use is considered to date back to ancient times.
“It goes back to the Indians and the Spanish, who used the beach to traverse. It was the only way to get around,” Passidomo said.
Pritt said he’ll suggest the city begin compiling evidence of public use of as much as the beach as possible in case the city is ever taken to court over its customary-use stance.
“Maps, old photographs showing Grandma in the 1950s was out on the beach, aerials. I’ll propose we might want to start doing that inventory. Those are the types of things that will be helpful, you bet.” he said.
There could be as many court cases as there are beachfront properties, Pritt speculated, since customary use will vary from one parcel to the next.
An aggrieved person who feels they’ve been unfairly told to leave a beach could file suit. As could a landowner who believes the public is encroaching on private property. As could a municipality looking to secure access for people at large.
Or, everyone could just keep on as they have been with a minimum of rancor. Pritt says he expects the former, rather than the latter.
“I fully expect an onslaught of private property owners trying to rope off their properties. You can imagine an inundation (of lawsuits),” he said.
In addition to the past use of the beach and its status as a public street in the city, the beach in Collier County also benefits from being the regular recipient of taxpayer-funded renourishment. With the exception of Delnor-Wiggins Pass State Park and a stretch of beach north of Gordon Pass, nearly all of the Collier County beach has been renourished at one time or another over the past 20 years.
The private property line on a renourished beach changes from the mean high tide line to what is called the erosion control line. It’s difficult to plot, but Pritt said using the erosion control line as the standard generally results in more public beach.
Passidomo said regular renourishment means the law will have minimal impact here.
“This hasn’t been an issue in Collier County, which places a priority on beach renourishment to ensure there is an abundance of publicly owned property between the mean high tide line and private property,” she wrote.
Passidomo says the new law is widely misunderstood.
“I’ve lived here for 40 years. I would never, ever take away public access to the beach. I go to the beach,” she said.
Determining exactly where private property ends and public property begins has always been a challenge, dating back to at least Young’s time on the Naples police force — a time memorialized in his memoir, “I’m Peddlin’ As Fast As I Can.”
After explaining the rules to owners, “They’d say, ‘Show me where the line is.’
“I’d say, ‘Partner, I can’t do that,’ ” Young said.