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Court Decision On St. Pete Beach Access Could Affect Other Coastal Cities

Saint Pete Beach
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Saint Pete Beach

A property owner in St. Pete Beach has won big in a dispute over public beach access.

A federal court has ordered the city to pay Chet Chmielewski's estate $1.5 million.

The decision might have repercussions for disputes between beachfront property owners and government in other coastal cities.

Chmielewski, who died in 2014, claimed that the city encouraged the public to use his private beach after it installed "Beach Access" signs along a private sidewalk behind his home.

The signs were put up after the renovation of the Don Vista Community Center—now the Suntan Art Center. Chmielewski claimed people walked on the side of his home to access the beach from the art center’s public parking lot.  

Christina Martin, an attorney for the Pacific Legal Foundation, which assisted Chmielewski's legal team, said St. Pete Beach encouraged the public to use the "dry sand" private beach, in addition to having access to the "wet sand" public beach. 

“I think there's some misconceptions about the case. People are thinking this is going to threaten the public's ability to go to the beach,” Martin said. “This (ruling) basically just says if the government wants to turn private land into public land, they have to pay for it.”

It's the latest chapter in a long-running disagreement between Chmielewski and St. Pete Beach that started over a decade ago. Chmielewski repeatedly sued the city over access and land use. After the Don Vista renovations in 2005, the city rezoned his beach property from private land to public park use, which didn’t match his ownership rights.    

St. Pete Beach will receive a public easement to the beach. But city attorney Andrew Dickman told the Tampa Bay Times that officials will hold a meeting to decide a further response to the ruling.

A new law that goes into effect in July says that any city or county that wants to enact an ordinance to make private beaches public will have to go through the courts.

Editor’s note: Christina Martin was previously misquoted in this story regarding "wet sand" access to a public beach. The story has been updated.

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Dinorah Prevost is a WUSF Public Media news intern for summer 2018.
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