Collier commissioner wants to keep condo from closing beach to public

Moraya Bay restricts beach access

North Naples condo draws ire for restricting ...

— Collier County Commissioner Frank Halas wants the county to explore whether it has legal grounds to block a Vanderbilt Beach condominium’s move to keep the public off a stretch of beach.

Halas, whose district includes Vanderbilt Beach, has put the issue on Tuesday’s regular meeting of the Collier County Commission.

The Moraya Bay condominium set off a firestorm this week after setting up cones and wooden sticks marking a stretch of sand in front of the high-rise as off-limits to the public.

“What’s got to be done is have access for the people,” Halas said Thursday. “It’s between the haves and the have-nots.”

Moraya Bay is not completely cutting off beach access below its high-rise windows.

Beachgoers still can walk to the beach from the end of Bluebill Avenue, but Moraya Bay is pushing sun-seekers to within steps of the water’s edge.

A spokeswoman for Moraya Bay said this week that the condo developer, an arm of Signature Communities, is only exercising the same rights as other beachfront landowners and is being unfairly singled out for criticism.

Florida state law says beachfront property owners like Moraya Bay own the sand out to an erosion control line established for beach restoration projects.

If there is no erosion control line, private beach ownership extends generally to the mean high water line, according to state law.

One of the legal questions involved, though, is whether decades of public use of that beach sets a precedent that precludes Moraya Bay from keeping the public off it now.

County Attorney Jeff Klatzkow said he would be prepared to answer commissioners’ questions Tuesday but he would not opine until then about the legality of the condominium’s move.

A former general counsel for the state Department of Environmental Protection weighed in on the issue this week.

Harold “Bud” Vielhauer, who recently left the DEP to become general counsel for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, responded to an e-mail from Naples City Councilman Doug Finlay raising concerns about the Moraya Bay situation.

“It sounds like the public has used the dry sand area for 40 to 50 years,” Vielhauer wrote. “The mere fact that the developer is trying to stop access now is too late.”

Vielhauer wrote that the issue is a DEP and local government issue, not a Conservation Commission issue, and it was unclear how much research Vielhauer had done into the specifics of the Moraya Bay case.

For his part, Finlay wrote that it wouldn’t surprise him if beachfront property owners all over Florida move to block access to privately owned sand.

That would hurt tourism and threaten inland property values, he wrote.

“If this matter can’t be resolved through administration or the courts, then the state Legislature needs to get involved rather quickly or the repercussions could be huge,” Finlay wrote.

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Connect with Eric Staats at www.naplesnews.com/staff/eric_staats/.

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