By Dan Moffett
Ocean Ridge commissioners, who have struggled for months trying to decide how to manage access to their public beaches, got some free legal advice from a resident who also happens to be a Palm Beach County circuit judge.
Lucy Chernow Brown, who has lived in Ocean Ridge for more than 20 years and who has been a judge in the 15th Judicial Circuit since 1991, told them to be careful about confusing beach access issues with beach enforcement issues.
“You can’t justify closing a public beach just because some people behave badly when they use it,” she said. And she told them to be very careful about putting up implied barriers that keep the public away. Brown said the town of Palm Beach tried using unlocked gates to deter foot traffic to its beach and wound up taking a beating in court.
“I think you want to be careful and not raise this question of a barrier to public access,” she told commissioners during their Jan. 10 meeting. “Believe me, the people in Palm Beach said a lot of the same things that the people in Ocean Ridge are saying — that ‘there are too many people using our beach.’ ”
Commissioners have been wrestling with beach sign issues since October when residents near the Beachway Drive dune walkover put up “private beach” signs to keep people off their beachfront backyards. Property owners have complained that the town’s “public access” signs are attracting too many out-of-town beachgoers and are really unwarranted advertising that the commission should stop.
“When you talk about not advertising it, it can be interpreted as a barrier to the kind of public access that has been historical in Florida,” Brown told the commission. “You want to be careful that you don’t run into the kind of lawsuit that other towns in Florida have run into.”
The courts may view Ocean Ridge’s “private beach” signs the same way as Palm Beach’s unlocked gates, Brown suggested.
She cited two cases: a 1974 circuit court ruling that said barricades to public beaches are illegal; and a 1990 case in which one of Brown’s former colleagues, retired Circuit Judge Edward Rodgers, excoriated Palm Beach for putting up the unlocked gates that impeded access to the town’s beaches.
“Gates, even though unlocked, present a barrier and suggestion of private property, especially in Palm Beach, a town internationally known for its private estates secured by gates,” Rodgers wrote in ruling against the town. “The public should not be denied access to the places it has a right to be.”
Commissioner Ed Brookes said he agreed that enforcement and access were separate issues. He said bad behavior by some isn’t reason to punish the public at large.
“If people are acting badly anywhere, we have enforcement issues,” Brookes said. “If people are on private property, that’s an enforcement issue. If we keep combining them I think we’re wrong, because we take it as if we just stop everybody who has right to cross the crosswalk and then all the problems will go away.”
The commissioners decided against acting on the beach signs and instead instructed staff to come up with a fact-finding process using the town’s planning and zoning board to get more input from residents. Town Attorney Ken Spillias said the issue should have a regular spot on the commission’s monthly meeting agenda to help track the process.
In other business:
• The commissioners gave Town Manager Ken Schenck mostly satisfactory marks in his annual evaluation. Schenck won praise for his good working relationships with the commission and staff but drew criticism for not taking a more proactive approach and not showing more aggressive leadership.
Mayor Geoff Pugh said Schenck’s “work with the town on the budget was excellent last year” but doubted that his overall performance was likely to improve.
“You do a good job,” Pugh said. “I don’t expect any fireworks display. You do what you’re supposed to do. That’s what we have as a town manager. I don’t think at this point in your life there’s going to be any huge change in the way you manage. The town as a whole should get used to that or get someone else.”
• Two commission seats are open for three-year terms in the March 11 municipal election. The filing period for candidates runs from Jan. 28 at noon until noon on Feb. 11.