On July 1st of this year a new law overwhelmingly was passed by the Florida legislature and signed by Florida’s governor, Rick Scott. It is now fully in effect. The law restricts public access to Florida’s expansive beaches when crossing private properties. For decades many of Florida’s public beaches were only accessible by crossing private property. Private property owners who wanted to block public access had to fight with city and county governments to restrict access across their property. Local governments could argue “customary use”, claiming that the access belongs to the public because that access has been available to the public for years or even decades.

The new law now blocks the public from walking across private beach accesses to get to the public beach. It also gives private property owners much more power to control that access. Now local governments, wanting to allow access to the public beach, will have to go through multiple hearings and a judge to get that approval rather than using the customary use argument (See my blog article; Wet Sand Dry Sand Where Do You Stand.)

The new law has become quite controversial not to mention that many of the lawmakers who voted for the law have said they didn’t even understand the bill that they voted for. Now many of those same lawmakers want it repealed. The law has sparked and angry public backlash. Governor Scott, who owns a waterfront mansion in Naples, backpedaled and recently signed an executive order that asked all local governments not to enforce the law. This flip-flop has become an issue in his race to replace U.S. Senator, Bill Nelson, this coming fall.

Well, in Belleair Shore, a tiny beach town in Pinellas County, population 114, where the median household income is $188,750 and the median property value is 2 million dollars, the question of beach access has sparked a somewhat different dispute. Instead of just humans, some Belleair Shore residents want to give the sea turtles the boot too. Town commission members are complaining about spotting marked sea turtle nests on their beachfront land – nests that they said had all been put there without permission, by the Clearwater Marine Aquarium.

An article in the Tampa Bay Times from August 10th. 2018 highlights this dispute. “They relocated 400 eggs onto private property and didn’t tell us” Deputy Mayor Deborah Roseman said in an interview with the Tampa Bay Times. “We learned about it by going out and seeing all these roped-off areas on private property.”

Roseman said she spotted six nests on her property, while commissioner Steve Blum, said he spotted one that had been relocated to by the aquarium and at sea turtle volunteers. But David Yates, the CEO of the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, suggested the to Commissioners may want to check their property deeds and also their math. Before moving any nests to Belleair Shore he said his turtle team reviewed County property records to ensure they were on public land we are not trying to violate someone’s property rights. Yates said. Not all of those are ones that were located from another beach area he said. “That one nest behind Commissioner Blum’s property is a natural nest” Yates said. As for what’s near Roseman’s home he said there are eight nests out there; three of them were relocated but the other five were not. They are natural nests. Despite Yates assurances Roseman insists that the turtles are trespassing at least according to the way Belleair Shore measures property boundaries.

While other beach towns beg for state and federal help in rebuilding their beaches after a storm, Belleair Shore has consistently rejected any beach renourishment project. The reason, a rebuilt beach is by law basically a public beach. Yet the lack of any beach renourishment is what makes Belleair Shore the perfect spot for relocating nests Yates said.

On dark nights from May through October thousands of female sea turtles all from species listed as threatened or endangered swim-up to Florida’s beaches, climb up to a dry spot, dig a hole and lay scores of golf ball-sized eggs. Then they cover up the hole and drag themselves back into the surf and swim away leaving the eggs and eventual hatchlings to fend for themselves the rest of their life. it is estimated that only one hatchling out of 1000 even makes it to adulthood. All over the state, trained volunteers go out every morning before sunrise to look for drag marks, then they post markers around the nest so no one disturbs them before the eggs hatch, usually within 50 to 60 days. When there’s a potential problem with a nest site, they will carefully dig up the eggs and move them to a safer spot.,

The Clearwater crew, working under the permit from the State Wildlife Commission, has been moving turtle nests out of the way of sand moving machinery on nearby Belleair Beach to keep them from being run over or otherwise disturbed. That’s why they’re relocating them to Belleair Shore, to make sure the little baby hatchlings have a safe route back to the water once they emerge. Yates said this is the first time anyone has objected in 30 years to the aquarium which is been marking and occasionally relocating sea turtle nests. Most people enjoy having these nest in their areas and watching them hatch he said.

Belleair Shore’s turtle tiff is a unique twist on the overall beach access battle now going on statewide. But, this isn’t the first time the tiny beach town has gotten embroiled in a big dispute. In 1995 then Mayor, Bob Clayton, insisted two women who didn’t own property in the town be ticketed for drinking coffee on Bellaire Shore’s beach while they watched the sunrise. The resulting uproar made national news headlines. A year later Clayton flashed a gold-plated badge and demanded that two beach visitors leave. “I am the police” Clayton shouted. Clayton was convicted of battery and criminal mischief. Later his fellow Commissioners forced his resignation. Then in 1998, the town somehow wound up with two mayors, each accusing the other of being a fraud. A judge settled that one, ruling for the mayor who didn’t actually live in Belleair Shore, but in neighboring Belleair Beach. The loser tried running again, but lost to a candidate whose slogan was “swimsuits not lawsuits”.

Belleair Shore’s town commissioners spent some time debating the turtle nests situation at their last meeting in July. At their next one they may discuss passing an ordinance or at least firing off and indignant letter, the deputy mayor said.

But if they wait a little while, say until after the hatchlings dig their way out of the sand, race for the surf and escape the ever-present beach commandos, the dispute could resolve itself naturally. Baby turtles usually hatch after about 50 days or so of incubation in their nest.

Good luck little guys and be sure to pay attention to the No Trespassing signs on your way out of town.