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Longboat Key seeks path around troublesome seawalls

Pedestrian access to the beach has been compromised in areas of Longboat Key, and there doesn't seem to be a simple solution.

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  • | 5:00 a.m. June 9, 2022
Beach walkers have few options to circumvent the Ohana house seawall, which juts into the water.
Beach walkers have few options to circumvent the Ohana house seawall, which juts into the water.
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Longboat Key leaders remain perplexed about the best method to ensure pedestrian access to the beach due to a pair of private properties that jut out beyond the erosion control line.

The Longboat Key Town Commission heard presentations from coastal engineer Al Browder and Public Works Director Isaac Brownman Monday about the difficulties beach walkers have had navigating around seawalls at 6633 Gulf of Mexico Drive and 6541 Gulfside Road.

The presentations yielded no easy solutions.

The Town Commission can consider spending money to continually renourish the beach near those protruding properties, but state statute dictates that it cannot add a parallel walk or promenade in front of the seawall. Brownman also said he has investigated building additional public beach access points, but that effort does not appear to be feasible.

The presentation led the town commissioners to question the overall strategy for Longboat Key going forward: Does it make sense to renourish the beach if the town will be tending to private property?

“That’s the slippery slope we have,” said Vice Mayor Maureen Merrigan. "If you have a private property owner that doesn’t let the public cross the area, then you have a public that doesn’t want to pay for beach renourishment. That’s why this is such a tough issue.”

Commissioners asked engineers to survey the area because of trouble navigating around the private Ohana property located at 6633 Gulf of Mexico Drive. The town negotiated with the property owners regarding the possibility of an easement agreement, but when that failed, it began to look for alternate arrangements.

One option was to continue maintaining sand in front of the seawall to allow beachgoers to walk around the property without trespassing or wading into the water. Brownman said a study indicated that it would cost the town $3.1 million annually to place 200,000 cubic yards of sand every three years. If the town built groin structures to go with the sand, Brownman indicated that the annual costs would be reduced to $931,000 a year.

“This just illustrated some of the financial challenges to keep sand in front of this area just for the purpose of maintaining a walkable route in front of the wall,” he said.

Brownman also explained that Florida Statute 161.201 states that it is not permissible to build a walkway in front of the seawall. That led Commissioner Debra Williams to ask if the town cannot build a walkway in front of the seawall and if everything behind the erosion control line is private property, then where is the space for a public walkway?

“There’s really no public beach access walking area,” said Brownman. “There probably hasn’t been since the (erosion control line) has been set except when there’s a bunch of sand there.”

The engineers also explored the possibility of adding additional public access points and were stymied.

Brownman said he spoke to property owners north of the Ohana property, and the only feasible access point would be at the property line of 6677 Gulf of Mexico Drive. There’s already an existing pedestrian access easement there, but because of the way the ordinance was written in 1988, it’s not really technically available to the public."

“It is an easement specific to the residents of the town of Longboat Key now,” said Brownman. “How do you enforce such a thing? You don’t. … There’s a space there. There’s a walkway that people use there. Because it is dedicated to the residents of the town of Longboat Key, the property owner actually maintains it. But it's not technically 100% public.”

There are also problems in building a public access point south of the Ohana property. If one is built between it and the half moon property, which is at 6541 Gulfside Road and also has a seawall, it would trap beachgoers between it. Brownman cited a vacant parcel at 6489 Gulfside Road as a potential place a path could be built, but he said the owner is not open to granting an access easement.

There are also remnants of older seawalls in the area, which might make it difficult to access.

“The more we dug into it, there’s really no good place south of the wall,” said Brownman. “You trap people here between 6633 and the half moon (or) you trap people between the half moon and these set of rocks. So this really wasn’t the greatest idea but it was something where we at least wanted to investigate the possibility. The prospective owner said no anyway.”

Mayor Ken Schneier asked the engineers if the town has the ability to remove a private property’s seawall if they don’t maintain it and if it’s an obstacle to pedestrians. Brownman replied that he doubts whether the town can remove the wall for walkability. 

Schneier said he’s also not clear on whether the town has that authority to rule that the properties are unsafe because they endanger beachwalkers.

“That's sort of what I'm asking. This is a new issue that’s come up now,” he said. “We’ve had more and more issues come up over time as things pop out of the ocean that we don’t want to be there. We’ve talked about where mistakes were made in the past.

"Was there any mistake when Ohana was allowed to redo their wall? Maybe yes and maybe no. We may not have had the right to interfere with that but we may want to look more carefully at other opportunities to avoid problems.”

Commissioner B.J. Bishop lent more perspective on the issue before the commission; she said that at one point, the Longboat Town Commission had an opportunity to purchase the Ohana property and decided it wasn’t a great enough priority.

“When the Ohana property was an old single-story house, it was brought to the commission by David Brenner that they had an opportunity to buy this property to deal with the seawall,” she said. “The commission voted 1-6 to not do it. So unfortunately those people who served before us did not see this as an impediment, and we are now faced with decisions made almost 12 years ago.”


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