Graphic provided by Engenuity Group Inc.
By Dan Moffett
Ocean Ridge residents are finding out that the more they learn about the layout of their beachfront, the less they understand.
Town commissioners hired a surveyor to set a demarcation line on the beaches that distinguishes between public and private property. In December, Gary Rayman of Engenuity Group Inc., a West Palm Beach surveying firm, did the work.
Rayman gave the commission a map with a north-south demarcation line that was based on two separate erosion-control line surveys approved by state environmental officials years ago. The ECL north of Anna Street was established in 1997, and the line south of Anna in 1978.
Rather than clarify matters, the demarcation line appears to have added new layers of complication to an already complicated issue that has dogged the town for nearly a year.
For starters, instead of a straight and clean boundary, the northern segment of the line staggers back and forth, to the east and west.
Another problem is that the demarcation line wanders across private property lot lines that vary in their eastern boundaries. Many of the town’s older lots were drawn farther to the east when there was a wider beachfront, according to town officials.
And then there is the demarcation line’s division of usable beach space.
As a practical matter, the line gives most of the dry sand to private property owners. Depending on the tides, the areas designated as public beaches are likely to be underwater much of the day.
Commissioners wanted the demarcation line to help guide police in enforcing proper beach behavior and protecting private property rights.
Town Manager Ken Schenck says police will respond to every call from property owners, but the demarcation line might not always figure into the response. “There are just too many moving parts,” Schenck says of the survey results.
Enforcement, he says, “will be on a case-by-case basis.”
Public Trust Doctrine
Beaches in Florida are generally accessible to the public, regardless of private ownership.
Article X, Section 11 of the Florida Constitution says the state holds the land seaward of the mean high water line (or mean high tide line) in trust for the public, a provision commonly known as the Public Trust Doctrine.
According to the Constitution: “The title to lands under navigable waters, within the boundaries of the state, which have not been alienated, including beaches below mean high water lines, is held by the state, by virtue of its sovereignty, in trust for all people.”
The Constitution seeks to “ensure the public’s right to reasonable access to beaches.” But coastal communities have struggled to find the line that, as a practical matter, definitively separates public and private property.
Simply put, the mean high water line determines where land and water meet and is based on a 19-year average of tidal data. The MHWL is not a permanent line and can move with the shifting tides over time.
Unlike the MHWL, the erosion-control line is a permanent line. The state Department of Environmental Protection authorizes the ECL, which represents the landward extent of the state’s claims as sovereign titleholder and sets the horizontal measurement base for beach renourishment projects.
In Ocean Ridge, the MHWL and the ECL are the same south of Anna Street.