Signs on the north and south ends of the Turtle Beach condominiums may give the impression that the complex’s private property extends both east and west of the signs, because of the arrows. Police typically define private property to be landward of ‘mean high tide,’ which on this day would have been left of this sign. Jerry Lower/The Coastal Star
By Joe Capozzi
The on-again, off-again issue of public beach access came up again at a Town Commission meeting last month when residents complained about “No Trespassing” signs outside an Ocean Ridge condominium complex.
At issue are signs east of the Turtle Beach of Ocean Ridge, a 26-unit condominium community along Old Ocean Boulevard bordered by Hersey Drive on the north and Tropical Drive on the south.
“It really communicates to everyone that you can’t cross the line going south into Turtle Beach,’’ James Connolly of Hersey Drive told commissioners.
The condo says it has ownership rights that extend to the beach’s mean high water line, generally the area of wet sand at the water’s edge. Florida law allows public access to the beach between the waterline and the erosion control line, an area generally near high tide.
At town meetings beachgoers have often complained of a proliferation of signs all along the beach in Ocean Ridge. And of special concern, they say some of the Turtle Beach signs are posted in the waterline and infringe on the rights of residents who live just north and south of the condo.
The signs at Turtle Beach face east and west with arrows pointing in both directions, which gives beachgoers like Connolly and others the impression that “no trespassing” applies to the entire beach.
“I don’t believe these signs are legal,’’ said Debbie Cook of Tropical Drive. “They are creating a compound, setting their boundaries and using my tax dollars to monitor their property.’’
Some signs are so close to the water that they’re often washed out to sea, where they pose a danger to swimmers and marine life, Connolly said.
“They are unnecessary and they’re unsightly and they’re unneighborly,’’ he said. “It creates kind of an aggressive hostile environment on the beach when people like to go down to the beach and chill.’’
But not everyone goes to the beach to chill, which is why the signs went up in the first place, said Mark Feinstein, president of the Turtle Beach of Ocean Ridge Condominium Association.
“I’ve been living here since 2016 and I can tell you from personal experience we’ve had a number of problems” with beachgoers “becoming drunk and disorderly on the beach, causing problems with our residents, playing loud music or being otherwise obnoxious and not allowing us to enjoy our own beach,’’ he said in an interview.
“Nobody wants signs,’’ he said, “but when people don’t respect property rights, what are you going to do?’’
The association applied for and received a town permit for four signs, which were posted on the condo’s part of the beach. The signs don’t prohibit the public from “using the wet sand to go north and south,’’ Feinstein said.
“Just because your sand gets wet doesn’t mean that that’s the mean high tide water mark. The actual mark is much further east. We don’t have an issue with that. We haven’t stopped anybody from traversing across wet sand in water. It’s the people who think they can camp here.’’
Other residents, though, claim they’ve seen as many as six signs outside Turtle Beach, including some in public access areas.
“My wife sent me a picture and the thing looks like it’s halfway into the ocean,’’ Commissioner Geoff Pugh said at the Dec. 5 meeting, adding that it’s “the second or third time these signs have showed up in the same spot.’’
He asked the town attorney if Ocean Ridge officials can remove the ill-placed signs.
“The town can remove signs from right of ways,’’ Pugh said. “What is the legality of the town removing a sign as egregious as one that’s eastward of the high mean waterline?’’
The answer isn’t so simple, said Town Attorney Christy Goddeau.
“There’s a bundle of property rights in beach property, so trying to balance those property interests is always a struggle,’’ she said.
“The public trust doctrine gives the public the right to recreate, to swim, to walk across that area. It doesn’t give them the right to permanently camp there. … There are competing property interests.’’
Pugh said his main concerns are the location of the signs and whether that sets a precedent for “every other property owner up and down the beach to start putting signs all the way into the beach.’’
Goddeau recommended town officials take a first step by reviewing Turtle Beach’s sign permit to make sure the association is in compliance and to see if the permit dictates exactly where the signs can be placed.
“Then, if the direction of the commission is to do more about it, to update your sign code, we can certainly pursue that,’’ she said.
Feinstein, who did not attend the Dec. 5 meeting, said he had not been contacted by town officials as of Dec. 14.
He said some signs, which cost $300 each, have been removed by beachgoers.
Part of the problem, he said, is the “transient” nature of some residents who rent properties on Tropical Drive and beachgoers who come across the Woolbright Road bridge from the mainland.
“The other huge concern we have is there’s an apartment building going up over the bridge. One of their advertising brochures says, ‘Walk to the beach,’’’ Feinstein said.
“We are waiting for the onslaught when those apartments become occupied. It’s going to get a lot worse.’’
Feinstein also said he thinks the complaints are politically motivated attacks against Mayor Susan Hurlburt, a Turtle Beach resident who is up for reelection in March.
Hurlburt, who did not participate in the sign debate at the Dec. 5 meeting, referred questions to Feinstein.
“I have always worked diligently at separating any and all of my private interests from town business,’’ she said in a statement to The Coastal Star.
“I absolutely avoid all involvement in my official capacity with the town that may give even the perception of wandering into self-interest.
“But as I am a resident of Turtle Beach, and with an election forthcoming, I have therefore become the point of negative focus for the beach sign issue.’’