- February 5, 2014
For the past three years, Brenda Cantin has made the 20-minute drive to Longboat Key’s north-end beach from Palma Sola.
The retiree enjoys walking on the Manatee County side of Longboat Key’s beach and looking for shells.
“This beach has always been a nice, peaceful, quiet beach,” Cantin said.
Maybe in terms of stillness, but the furor at Town Hall over access past the seawall at 6633 Gulf of Mexico Drive these days is anything but.
Cantin and husband would range far to the south, in search of unusual finds while at the beach, sometimes beyond the seawall on the property known as Ohana.
“He would beat me over to there and he would sit on the other side,” Cantin said recently, within steps of what is now a no-trespassing barrier.
Months ago, after repairs to the seawall following Hurricane Eta in 2020, the Ohana owners posted signs that their property is now off-limits. The property extends to the water’s edge.
To avoid trespassing, beachgoers can either wade into the surf, or use a pair of public access points to leave the beach and bypass the property.
The dilemma has raised tempers on the beach, leading to several police calls and an arrest. Town leaders on Monday discussed potential solutions but came to no conclusions.
Among the ideas, a collection of legal and engineering notions such as a voluntary easement, eminent domain proceedings, invoking customary use provisions, additional sand, a walkway or pier and additional public access points for an easier detour.
The Longboat Observer did not hear back from the owners of the property despite leaving a voicemail, sending an email and ringing the bell button on the security gate. However, attorney Dan Guarnieri of Sarasota-based Berlin Patten Ebling represents the Ohana owners and spoke before the Town Commission on Monday.
“As private property owners, they’re currently legally liable for public use of that property, and that’s a situation that not many people find themselves in,” Guarnieri said. “Not many people find that the public is traversing their property, and at times in dangerous conditions without the ability to mitigate that danger.”
Guarnieri provided the Town Commission with pictures and footage of people trespassing on the Ohana property both during the day and at night. He also provided a video showing a boy getting hurt after jumping from the seawall into the Gulf of Mexico.
“This is not a property owner who’s moved in and is a bah-humbug so to speak,” Guarnieri said. “They have legitimate concerns they’re trying to address.”
Earlier this month, the Ohana owners proposed the town provide annual compensation between $880,000 and $1.3 million for the public use as a path past the property.
“This did not strike me as a reasonable proposal not only because of the amount involved, but also because it was structured as an annual lease rather than a real easement, and heaven knows we don’t want to be visiting this annually,” District 1 Commissioner Sherry Dominick said. “That just seems absurd to me.”
“What was presented here, I think, by the owners struck me as bad faith,” District 2 Commissioner Penny Gold said. “It was not a true proposal.”
Under the proposal, the town would also be responsible for the maintenance of the leased area, which would have an additional cost of about $72,000 each year.
Manatee County public records show the owners of the property at 6633 Gulf of Mexico Drive paid $147,596.98 in property taxes in 2021. Records show the Ohana owners have paid six figures in property taxes since 2013.
In 2019, the Ohana property sold for $11.4 million. Kathryn Hutcheson sold the property to “Elliott, Robinson & Company, LLP, a Missouri limited liability partnership, as Trustee of the Ohana Hale Estate Land Trust.”
Guarnieri said that Ohana hired Richard Bass of the Sarasota-based Bass Fletcher and Associates to conduct an appraisal for about 1 acre of their property. It is comprised of the sand within the Ohana seawall.
“Right now, the only people who have made any effort to quantify the value of that kind of arrangement of lease or easement have been my clients, so that’s where the number comes from,” Guarnieri said. “It was not plucked out of thin air. It was generated by an expert in property appraisal.”
Schneier told Guarnieri to relay the following to his clients after Monday’s meeting.
“When you add to a number of roughly $1 million plus or minus per year…it does put into question what you’ve been hired to come in here and try to present, which is sort of the public-mindedness and reasonableness of your clients,” Schneier told Guarnieri. “It calls that into serious question.”
On Monday, commissioners also heard from Marc Preininger, who owns the seawall at 6541 Gulfside Road. Preininger’s property is known as the “half-moon seawall” and it sits just south of the Ohana site.
“I can answer any question over seven years of public access from someone who has allowed it, reluctantly,” Preininger said. “Every single day, I had a confrontation.”
Preininger estimated that 90% of the people who cross his property are respectful. However, he said he’s had encounters that range from fishermen refusing to leave his seawall to people urinating on his property to catching a couple in a sex act.
“Whatever you do with Ohana, you have to do with me,” Preininger said. “I have not shut down my lateral access, but what I have been through in seven years, my patience is done and I am personally liable, and that’s my investment.
“(If) someone falls, guess who is getting sued? I am.”
Preininger said former Town Manager Dave Bullock considered buying the 6541 Gulfside Road property on Jan. 31, 2014, on behalf of the town to tear down the seawall and the structure for public access.
“To say that if I knew then what I know now, I would not have done it,” Preininger said.
Years ago, the town also considered buying the property where Ohana sits at 6633 Gulf of Mexico Drive.
On Monday, Preininger said both he and the Ohana owners have to replenish the sand inside their private seawalls after tropical storms and hurricanes whereas the town will perform these duties for the remaining 10.5 miles or so of public beaches.
Preininger’s seawall doesn’t extend as far into the Gulf of Mexico as Ohana’s.
The town has one other seawall at the Longbeach Condominiums at 7065 Gulf of Mexico Drive. However, the property has plenty of sand in front of the seawall after the completion of the town’s north-end dredging project.
Adding more sand around the Ohana seawall lacks long-term feasibility, according to data presented by Public Works Director Isaac Brownman.
Brownman estimated it would cost the town $3.1 million a year if it placed 200,000 cubic yards of sand in front of and around the Ohana property. About 66,700 cubic yards are lost each year near the Ohana seawall, which the town experienced when it concluded its beach renourishment project. If the town added between three and six rock groins, the annual costs would lower to $931,000.
“We can’t keep dumping sand there,” Vice Mayor Mike Haycock said.
State regulators have said they would not issue a walkway permit.
Schneier suggested the town take a multifaceted approach. He also suggested the town approach nearby property owners to see if they would accept more agreeable terms for an easement.
“I think we should quickly address property owners on either side of this and see if there’s some arrangement that can be made,” Schneier said. “Maybe we’ll get lucky with those people adjacent or nearby to have a way out to the street.”
However, Haycock expressed his concern about the potential cost.
“My concern is we’re going to spend a whole bunch of money and no one is going to use it,” Haycock said.
Several north-end residents spoke before the Town Commission on Monday. It includes nonprofit One Island, One Beach President Laurel Phillips. She said One Island, One Beach was formed in November to specifically deal with the Ohana seawall issue.
“We’re not asking to picnic or use their sandy beach as a viewing platform for Fourth of July fireworks,” Phillips said. “There’s nothing at all reasonable about their offer when it doesn’t coincide with how we would use it.”
North-end resident Pat Kaufman mentioned how there is a trained dog at the property to fend off trespassers.
“Basically, we were shocked when the passage was denied,” Kaufman said. “(We) were shocked by the guard dog. That’s really a very fearful issue, and we just feel trapped at the north end.”
Longboat Key’s Planning, Zoning and Building Department, approved a permit in December 2020 for Ohana’s seawall reconstruction following storm damage during Eta the month before. The work was valued at $132,000.
The Florida Department of Environmental Protection permitted the Ohana property owners to repair the walls and required them to build the repaired walls to be 5 feet landward of the damaged wall.
Cantin said she is also a proponent of finding a way to allow people to walk along the seawall or nearby.
“I would like to walk on it, but it’s been like this for months, so it’s in my head, ‘Ok, I’m not going to go there,’” Cantin said. “When I first (used to) visit, we would walk all the way through to the other side, and it was nice. It was a longer walk.”