Gulf Breez Customary Use

Discussion in 'Local Government and Groups' started by Kaydence, Dec 6, 2018.

  1. Kaydence

    Kaydence Beach Fanatic

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    After decades of wrangling over a small parcel of land at the end of Catawba Street, the city of Gulf Breeze is poised to pay out $250,000 to private property owners on either side of the parcel who have been contesting the public's right to use the land since 2013.

    On Nov. 28, the Florida Court of Appeals released its decision to uphold the lower court's decision in regards to the Catawba lawsuit appeal. City lawyers had appealed a judge's ruling to compel the city to pay the plaintiffs' legal fees related to the ongoing legal battle.

    But a judge upheld the ruling, ordering the city to pay $250,000 to the plaintiffs' attorneys. The city's decision to not pursue another appeal effectively brings the legal battle to a close, meaning members of the public will have one fewer access way to the water.

    At the center of the original lawsuit, which was filed in Santa Rosa County civil court in 2013, is an approximately 20-by-50-foot beach on the Pensacola Bay, sandwiched in between two waterfront homes owned by John Lance Reese and Peter and Mitzi Peters.

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    This image from the Santa Rosa County property appraiser's website (with red lines added by the PNJ) shows the properties in question at the end of Catawba Street. (Photo: Courtesy of Santa Rosa County Property Appraiser)

    The beach is part of a small slice of land owned by Reese and Peters that sits at the end of Catawba Street in between their properties, but the land has been used by the city as a right-of-way since it was developed in the 1950s. For decades, Gulf Breeze city residents have claimed they used the right-of-way to access the beach and the water.

    The 2013 lawsuit brought by Reese and the Peters sought to establish the portion of the beach at the end of Catawba Street as their private property and prohibit the public from using it as a public water access. A judge in 2016 sided with them, saying the city was in contempt of court by placing a sign at the piece of land indicating it was a public water access.

    The beach and the land surrounding it has been at the center of various legal battles for decades, including a key case in 1979 that essentially deeded portions of the beach to upland property owners. The city argued that some parts of the beach, namely a portion of the beach at the end of Catawba Street, were never transferred to the proper homeowners and the sale of the beach for $18,000 in the fall of 2013 was not legal.

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    This strip of land is owned by the homeowners on either side but has been used as a right-of-way for the city of Gulf Breeze for decades. It leads to a piece of waterfront property that has all but officially been deemed off limits to the public, despite years of people using it as a public water access. (Photo: Annie Blanks/ablanks@pnj.com)


    But now, with the city losing its fourth consecutive appeal, incoming Mayor David Landfair says it's time to turn in the towel.

    "I have reached out to both families, and I am grateful to move forward," Landfair said in a statement to the News Journal. "The City Council has followed the advice of legal counsel as it relates to these various challenges to neighborhood waterfront access."

    "Since the late 1980s, longtime residents who had enjoyed the neighborhood beach since the 1950s have urged the city council to defend their right to enjoy the beach," Landfair's statement continued. "When the city was sued by (Reese) and Peters, residents continued to urge the city to defend the public's water access rights, pointing to the other six water access points which could be under threat."

    The city had sought to establish eminent domain over the property, essentially taking the land from the property owners with compensation, in 2015. It had also argued that because people had enjoyed the beach for decades, the rule of "customary use" would protect citizens' rights to continue using the beach.

    In late 2015, the city of Gulf Breeze even built a brand new staircase from the land down to the beach. Today, that staircase is abandoned and overgrown with weeds and trees. The city removed the sign encouraging public access to the property in compliance with a judge's order in 2016.

    Landfair, who had to recuse himself from much of the litigation due to his parents owning property in the Catawba subdivision, said it's time for the city to end the appeal.

    "In the instance of the Reeses and Peters, this has been particularly difficult as both families are outstanding Gulf Breeze citizens," he said in the statement. "I now am grateful to be able to say loud and clear that it is time to move on."

    Gulf Breeze ordered to pay $250,000 to private property owners over public access battle
     
  2. FloridaBeachBum

    FloridaBeachBum Beach Lover

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    Here's the rest of the same article not included in original post that is important too. $250,000 paid to land owner's attorney. Wonder what local government paid in damages to property owners?

    Ken Bell, an attorney for the Peters [prevailing land owners], blasted the city in a statement to the News Journal, saying "courts rarely find cities in contempt of court because most cities [and FL counties except one] respect the rule of law and the private property rights of citizens."

    He praised the court of appeal's decision and said his clients did "everything possible" to avoid litigation.

    "It is comforting knowing our courts will protect private property rights, but this was a long, unpleasant journey, and it is a shame the taxpayers' money was so needlessly wasted," he said.

    As of press time, the city has not responded to a public records request for how much it has spent on lawyers throughout the duration of the case.

    The Peters said in an email to the News Journal they were grateful to the courts.

    "Although the city council, prior city manager and city lawyer/mayor are responsible for forcing this litigation and approval of this cast amount of monies spent on lawyers, we do apologize to the citizens of Gulf Breeze," they said. "Know that we have been trying for over ten years to resolve this with the city, but to no avail."

    Landfair indicated he was concerned the ruling could establish precedent for other private homeowners in Gulf Breeze to challenge the public's right to access the land. He said similar lawsuits are pending.
     
  3. Kaydence

    Kaydence Beach Fanatic

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    No attempt to deceive FloridaBeachBun...to many ads in the article kept popping up and I thought I had gotten it all.

    My apologies.
     
  4. FloridaBeachBum

    FloridaBeachBum Beach Lover

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    I did not make a statement or implication of any deception. I did not "Reply" to the original post; but made an additional new post with a statement where the post came from.
    Good information. Thanks for the post and link. I just wish the commissioners, CU activists, and the public understood the doctrine of custom and property law.
     

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