Belleairs butt heads over beach entrances
By SHEILA MULLANE ESTRADA
BELLEAIR BEACH -- This is a story of two sibling beach communities that get along most of the time but sometimes, well, forget it.
Their mayors, just back from a Caribbean cruise together with their spouses, are trying to engineer a peaceful resolution to this question: Which municipality will maintain three lots that allow Belleair Beach residents to pass through Belleair Shore property to get to the beach on the Gulf of Mexico?
Several months ago, the Belleair Beach Park Board planted oak trees in the beach access lots at Sixth, 12th and 19th streets.
Belleair Shore objected -- the town says it owns the lots -- and forced the removal of the trees. Four of the five park board members resigned in protest.
At the same time, the two towns were trying to rewrite an expired agreement governing how Belleair Beach would maintain the three lots.
The dispute over the oak trees escalated into a dispute over the term of the agreement. Belleair Beach insisted on at least 10 years. Belleair Shore refused to consider more than a year.
The Belleair Beach City Council first threatened to sue its neighbor over ownership of the access lots and then ordered Mayor Mike Kelly to stop any maintenance activities.
"I'm a little tired of the lofty attitudes and feudal lords when I want to get to the beach," said council member Donna Durante. "I want a final opinion."
Maintaining the beach access lots costs Belleair Beach more than $10,000 a year under an agreement that expired in 1998.
"I don't like a one-year agreement with these people," council member Frank Lombardi said.
Belleair Beach Attorney Paul Marino said the lack of an agreement would not endanger residents' rights to the beach. He said 1950s-era warranty deeds give residents east of Gulf Boulevard (Belleair Beach) a "perpetual and irrevocable license" to access the beach.
"If they own it, let them take care of it," said council member Mary Jo Henderson.
Belleair Beach's police patrol the lots and ticket unauthorized visitors. A controversial fence and lockable gate installed by Belleair Shore prevent anyone from accessing the beach after dark.
Now, Belleair Shore is faced with spending more than $10,000 a year to maintain property its gulf-front residents don't need and often resent because the access lots bring visitors who "camp out" in what they consider their back yards, says Belleair Shore Mayor John Robertson.
Robertson also stressed that the beach access deeds do not apply to the entire town of Belleair Beach, but only those property owners east of Gulf Boulevard who have corresponding access rights in their deeds.
"We got kind of mad over the oak trees," Robertson said. "They never consulted with us. The trees are messy and are very inappropriate for the beach."
Robertson and Kelly, who say the oak trees are a "closed issue," are trying to repair the latest breach between the two communities.
The two friends talked about the dispute during a Caribbean cruise over the Thanksgiving holiday and are trying to restore a formal maintenance agreement.
On Monday, the prospects for an easy peace appeared dim as the Belleair Beach City Council reconfirmed its decision to halt maintenance activities.
Robertson said the Belleair Shore Town Commission will decide what to do at its Dec. 19 meeting.
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