By Rich Pollack
Robert Patek had seen enough.
A Highland Beach resident with a home on the east side of State Road A1A, Patek has been complaining for years about tractors that rake the beach behind his home.
He has stood before town commissioners several times, complaining that the tractors leave deep tracks in the sand and bury garbage on private beaches.
“It’s like a tractor highway behind my house,” he said.
So several weeks ago, Patek put up poles and ropes on his beach to keep the tractors away. In doing so, he ran afoul of state law. Florida Department of Environmental Protection officials made him take the ropes down but allowed him to keep up two of the four poles.
However, those poles may be coming down soon, either as a result of an ordinance the town is considering or because Patek voluntarily removes them.
Although Patek may be losing a battle, it appears he’s getting closer to winning the war over how beaches are cleaned.
The Town Commission is discussing beach raking and considering ordinances to license and regulate the companies that homeowners hire to clean beaches. Two city advisory boards and town staff are also considering action.
“There is no consistency on how the beach raking is done on the beach,” said Commissioner Elyse Riesa. “The first step in protecting our beaches is to have the right rules in place.”
A proposed ordinance for mechanical beach raking would in essence mirror rules established by the state DEP, which Town Attorney Pamala Ryan says are difficult to enforce because of limited state resources.
With an ordinance in place and permits required, the town would be in a better position to enforce rules designed to preserve the beach, she said.
ABOVE: Fresh tracks from beach cleaning equipment are a common sight in Highland Beach. How deep the tracks can be may come under new regulations. Tim Stepien/The Coastal Star
BELOW: Robert Patek’s home lies between a house to the south and condo to the north that use different companies for beach cleanup. The tractor drivers use Patek’s property to turn around, and he installed poles in an attempt to block them. Jerry Lower/The Coastal Star
At least two other small coastal towns, Ocean Ridge and Gulf Stream, have no specific rules about beach cleaning, but Manalapan does have restrictions.
“We don’t regulate cleaning of the beaches specifically,” said Ocean Ridge Town Manager Jamie Titcomb. “We defer to the DEP and work closely with them.”
Gulf Stream Town Clerk Rita Taylor said the town requires any company working there to be registered but does not have any specific regulations for beach cleaners.
“We haven’t had any complaints,” she said.
In Manalapan, however, those who clean beaches mechanically are required to have permits and are required to comply with conditions set forth by the state. Manalapan also requires that mechanical beach cleaning be done between sunrise and 11:30 a.m. Monday through Saturday.
Among the provisions of the draft ordinance are requirements that all debris collected from the beach be removed, not buried, and that tracks from equipment not be more than 2 inches deep.
Clayton Peart, president of Universal Beach Services — one of two beach cleaning companies serving Highland Beach property owners — said his firm most likely would be able to comply with the proposed ordinance.
“We don’t think we’ll have a problem following nearly the same conditions of the ordinance, which are nearly the same as those required by DEP,” he said. “We’ve been working in Highland Beach since the 1970s and we want to do the best job we can for the town and all the residents.”
Commissioners are also considering including provisions to regulate manual beach cleaning on private beaches.
While there is agreement that rules are needed, town leaders are wrestling with whether private beach property owners should continue to be responsible for cleaning their beaches or whether the town should take on that role.
Who should be financially responsible for beach cleaning, should the town take over the task, is complicated by the fact that all of the beaches above the mean high-water mark in Highland Beach are privately owned.
During a meeting last month, the town’s Natural Resources Preservation Advisory Board agreed to recommend that the town hire one company to take over the beach raking. The board recommended having the cost shared by all residents in the town.
In addition to the draft ordinance regulating beach cleaning, town leaders discussed an ordinance drafted as a direct result of the barrier Patek put up on the beach.
Several commissioners said they heard from residents who complained that the poles and ropes Patek put up constituted a safety hazard to those walking on the beach.
To address that concern, the town attorney’s office drafted an ordinance that would prohibit any structures on dune or beach areas with sand. The ordinance does, however, allow for temporary recreational amenities, including volleyball nets or beach chairs. It also excludes seawalls and steps needed to access the beach.
In addition, commissioners are considering allowing property owners to post Private Property or similar signs near the foot of the dune.
For his part, Patek said he understands why the town and the state wanted his yellow rope and his poles removed. He said he plans to remove the two remaining poles soon.
But he said he’s going to be watching to see if the town can prevent tracks that he says are as deep as 2 feet and what he claims is trash being buried on private beaches.
If the town can’t control the rakers, he said, the poles and ropes might go up again.
“I just don’t want the tractors damaging the dune,” he said.