By Dan Moffett
Ocean Ridge residents who have complained about too many people coming to their beaches are starting to notice a new wave of nonresident visitors: Ocean Ridge police officers.
Chief Chris Yannuzzi says his officers checked the Beachway Drive walkover 286 times in January after he ordered extra patrols of the area on every shift.
“We’ve been asked to provide additional patrols because of the allegation that there’s been a lot of bad behavior going on there,” he said. “I’ve been providing officers to that area, to the detriment of patrolling other areas of town.”
The increased scrutiny has grown out of the town’s internal debate over how to manage access to the public beaches and whether to allow “private beach” signs oceanfront residents have posted to keep people off their backyards. Property owners have complained about litter and drug paraphernalia left by rowdy beachgoers, but so far, the extra patrols haven’t turned up much.
“When we do find something, it’s usually dog-related,” Yannuzzi said. A town ordinance requires dog owners to keep their pets on leashes and clean up after them.
What the chief has discovered is a change in the behavior of beachgoers who see the signs — “an intimidation factor,” he says.
“I personally have noticed more people standing on that crosswalk than ever before because they don’t go further down,” Yannuzzi told town commissioners at a Feb. 3 meeting. “I’ve engaged in numerous conversations with people wanting to know, ‘Where can we go?’ and ‘Why can’t we go down to the beach anymore?’ ”
This is the reaction opponents of the signs have complained about. They believe the signs are turning away the public from public beaches and could make the town vulnerable to lawsuits.
Commissioners asked Town Manager Ken Schenck to research how neighboring coastal towns handle the problem, and his report didn’t provide much guidance. Ocean Ridge has small public beaches and oceanfront backyards abutting each other in ways unlike most communities.
Commissioner Zoanne Hennigan thinks there might be something to learn from Manalapan, however.
“Manalapan has a no-drinking ordinance,” Hennigan said. “We do not. That is one of the things I think we should consider.”
Yannuzzi said the only restriction on alcohol use is if it’s in a glass container, which is prohibited.
“There’s nothing wrong with drinking alcohol in Ocean Ridge on the beach,” he said. “There’s not a town ordinance with regard to open containers.”
Commissioners also received a report from Lewis Longman & Walker, the law firm of Town Attorney Ken Spillias. The report highlighted some of the complications municipalities encounter in trying to manage public beach access. Among the key findings:
• In Florida, the state owns the beach below the mean high water line and “public beach access is a protected right.” The courts could consider even inadequate parking a restriction on public beach access in some circumstances.
• Private landowners may own land above the mean high water line, but their rights “cannot be exercised so as to injure others in their lawful rights.”
• Renourishment can actually change the line between public and private beaches. “Once the beach is nourished, it is possible for the public to have rights in the ‘dry sand’ portion of the beach without entering onto any private property.”
• Dealing with trespassing can be a tricky problem for police. “Municipalities may not give police officers blanket authority to ask people to leave property that is known to be private. Private property owners are similarly prohibited from permanently authorizing police to remove others from their land.”
According to the report, police have to deal with trespassing incidents on a case-by-case basis, in other words, and “cannot be pre-authorized by municipalities to remove possible trespassers on sight.”
Commissioners reversed themselves and decided against kicking the beach sign issue down to the planning and zoning board. Instead, they are leaning toward handling it themselves after holding a special public hearing or workshop, perhaps as early as April.