Monday, November 5, 2018

Public Beach Access

Without having to investigate the constitutional legitimacy of public beach access on Longboat Key it is transparent that the right exists - sometimes adjacent the manicured porticoes of the coastal estates. The Gulf of Mexico Drive is the spine of this dwarfish barrier island. The view of the Gulf of Mexico on one side or of Sarasota Bay on the other is never long out of sight.

While the public beach access points are certainly not impenetrable, neither are they conspicuous. Most of the access points are so compatible with the overall surroundings that they blend in almost imperceptibly.

In what appears to have been a decision to build a retaining wall for possible flooding by the Gulf of Mexico onto the mainland, their is a short stretch (where Gulf of Mexico Drive curves near the 3000 Block) with a sidewalk constructed atop the retaining wall. In several places along this sidewalk (which is virtually hidden from the road by vegetation buffers between it and the sand dunes) there are narrow intersections which afford residents on the Bay side access to the beach.

Some of the access points are identified as private property, being a beach resort for residents in the compounds across the street.  It is not unusual to spot carefully stacked chaises longues, umbrellas and picnic tables. But always not far along is what is clearly a public access to the identical beach.

Many of the public access points have convenient parking spots available as well, again always compatible with the surroundings, never offensive. Though most of the residences on Longboat Key tend to be upscale and grand there is occasionally the hint of the architecture and Bohemian flavour peculiar to Key West for example.

For the most part however the development of either public or private description has preserved a conservative atmosphere which only infrequently captures what was once the cottage style resort.

Given what is patently the elderly demographic of Longboat Key it is no surprise that most of the residents confine themselves to their own gated community where they relax next to a pool instead of the Gulf or Bay (which is predominantly used for mooring yachts outside the homes).

History of Longboat Key - an Overview

LBK is a barrier island, approximately 10 miles long, located off the southwest coast of Florida.

For a small island, Longboat Key has a rich history. In the 1500’s, long before modern tourists discovered the white sand beaches, warm sub-tropical climate and recreational opportunities, the island was used by the Timucuan and Calusa Native American Indian tribes for their own hunting and leisure excursions. During that time, the water level in the Gulf of Mexico and Sarasota Bay is believed to have been six (6) feet below current measurements. Shell mounds and other artifacts have been found on LBK revealing that picnics and fish fries were commonplace hundreds of years ago, activities that are still enjoyed on the island today.

In 1539, Spanish explorer and conquistador Hernando DeSoto is thought to have visited the island on his search for gold and lands to claim for Spain. Along with his scout, Juan Anasco, DeSoto operated a traditional “longboat” through the northern pass between LBK and Ana Maria Island. It is believed that the boat DeSoto used is where Longboat Key derived its name. The island remained unpopulated until 1891, when a Confederate Civil War veteran named Thomas Mann settled on the north end with his grown sons. He was awarded 144 acres under the Homestead Act of 1862, while one of his sons was awarded another 144 acres on the south end. Mann sold his land around the turn of the century for $500. A few of the homes built on the island in the early 1900’s are still standing today. Fourteen families resided on the island by 1915. Agriculture was the primary business in the early 1900’s, with avocado, tomato, guava, and citrus crops delivered via steamboat to the mainland. In 1921, however, the island was hit by a devastating hurricane. Storm surge flooded the island and destroyed the crops, ending the farming pursuits on LBK. The island’s residents experienced another significant event in 1921, with the creation of Sarasota County. The island was split in half, with the northern half included in Manatee County and the southern half falling into Sarasota County.

In the early 1920’s, circus tycoon John Ringling began purchasing property on Sarasota’s barrier islands, including 2,000 acres on LBK. Ringling’s dream was to develop the island into a resort for affluent vacationers and he began construction on a Ritz-Carlton Hotel overlooking New Pass. Ringling developed Bird Key and St. Armands Circle, envisioning a spectacular upscale tourist and residential area. However, the Great Depression took a toll on Ringling’s finances and ended progress on the Ritz Carlton. After Ringling’s death, his heirs attempted to restart construction, but the partially-constructed hotel sat vacant for almost four decades.

During World War II, LBK was still sparsely inhabited. A target range was established near present-day Longboat Harbour, where Army Air Force planes practiced firing 50-calibre bullets. Gates blocked Gulf of Mexico Drive while target practice was held and then opened again to let vehicles pass.

The Town officially incorporated on November 14, 1955. LBK became a popular tourist destination in the 1950’s and 1960’s, with some of that era’s cottage-style resorts still in operation. In the late 1950’s, the Arvida Corporation bought hundreds of acres on the south end of the island, including the never-completed Ritz-Carlton hotel. The hotel was bulldozed in 1962 and Arvida began development of a planned community that transformed the southern end of the island into the resort-style residential community that exists today.

As LBK developed, leaders were concerned with keeping the natural beauty of the island intact. Land Development regulations did not allow new developments to be along Gulf of Mexico Drive (GMD), with walls and fencing. Instead, trees and dense vegetation were planted to provide buffers to buildings and provide a more natural view along the island’s main corridor. Large roadways signs were also prohibited, limiting the visual clutter along GMD. These approaches have been crucial to preserving the character of the island.

Rapid growth during and after the Arvida development caused residents and Town leaders to take a hard look at the future of the island and the continued growth could place on infrastructure and the natural environment. Residents who valued protection of the island’s low-density character stood across from developers who saw the island’s Gulf frontage as prime real estate. Years of debate ensued over the future of the island, sometimes with neighbour pitted against neighbour and residents from the north and south ends on opposing sides. Eventually, a resident-initiated referendum was passed that adopted strict growth measures to control density.

Tourism has been a vital and consistent part of LBK’s history. The island’s first hotel, built primarily to accommodate fishing parties, opened in 1913 and still stands as one of the Town’s oldest structures, though no longer in operation. Tourism has continued to be an important aspect of life on LBK. However, the Town holds a rather unique and limiting interpretation of “tourism” that has set it apart from typical high-turnover tourism destinations.

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