NAPLES — Collier County commissioners set the county on a courtroom collision course with a Vanderbilt Beach condominium Tuesday afternoon as an overflow crowd of angry beach lovers cheered them on.
Moraya Bay, at the end of Bluebill Avenue, ignited a firestorm of criticism last week after it marked off a stretch of beach in front of the luxury high-rise and shooed away people who tried to use it.
Commissioners voted unanimously to do whatever it takes to force Moraya Bay to back down — including taking on what promises to be a lengthy and expensive court fight — to preserve public access to the sand.
“You draw that line in the sand and don’t you budge,” longtime Little Hickory Shores resident Emily Maggio told commissioners.
Commissioner Jim Coletta, urging the crowd to not let Tuesday’s outpouring of opposition be the last word, rallied opponents to converge on the beach at Moraya Bay from 5 to 7 p.m. this Saturday armed with homemade protest signs.
On Tuesday morning, before the county vote, staff at Moraya Bay found vandals had spray painted a sales sign, beach chairs and umbrellas, causing thousands of dollars in damage.
In a two-page written statement issued late Tuesday afternoon, Moraya Bay developer Richard Corace asked that the public respect the condominium’s property rights.
“We ask that we be allowed to function as do other properties along the beach,” according to the statement. “We seek nothing more. We expect no less respect.”
Corace said Moraya Bay developers are prepared to meet with Collier County representatives to find a solution to the dispute.
“Inflammatory rhetoric and disrespect have no part in this process,” Corace said in the statement.
Commissioner Frank Halas, whose district includes Vanderbilt Beach, said Tuesday that a lobbyist for Moraya Bay approached him in December and said the condo would close off access to the beach if the condo didn’t get county approval for a beach club.
“I said basically, as far as I’m concerned, that’s blackmail,” Halas said.
To open a beach club at Moraya Bay, the condominium would need a special zoning approval called a conditional use, the county’s interim Community Development Administrator Nick Casalanguida said Tuesday.
He said commissioners had said last summer they were not inclined to approve the conditional use and Moraya Bay has not filed an application for one.
On Tuesday, Halas said the county has to take a stand now to stop private beach claims from spreading up and down the coast.
“I think we need to address the issue and take it to court,” Halas said.
Florida law says Moraya Bay owns the dry part of the sand out to the erosion control line, but one legal theory holds that the public has had use of that beach for so long that Moraya Bay can’t keep people off it now.
Commissioner Tom Henning said he was reluctant to rush into litigation over Moraya Bay until he can be more assured that the county would win.
If the county loses, it could cement the rights of other beachfront property owners to close their beaches to the public, Henning said.
“If we lose this, we’re going to lose big,” he said.
Coletta said a challenge to the state law regarding ownership of the beach is overdue.
“It’s about time and it should happen right here in Collier County,” Coletta said.
Within minutes of the commissioners’ vote, Casalanguida had dispatched a code enforcement officer to the North Naples condo, he said.
He said Moraya Bay had violated the county’s sign code when it marked off the beach with white cones printed with the Moraya Bay logo and the word “Private.”
Besides using the county’s code enforcement officers to fight back against Moraya Bay, commissioners also voted to change county law to prohibit beach renourishment in front of any beachfront property trying to restrict beach access.
The next stop could be a courtroom, commissioners said.
County Attorney Jeff Klatzkow told commissioners that the issues involved in the Moraya Bay case are of national scope and could go to the U.S. Supreme Court.
“It’s going to be a fight,” Klatzkow said. “It’s going to be a big nasty fight.”
Connect with Eric Staats at www.naplesnews.com/staff/eric_staats/