Cities and towns across America typically promote their top attractions, whether a beach or a trail, by posting signs.

However, St. Pete Beach, Florida, ran into a problem because the beach it promoted with signs and used for public events didn’t belong to the city.

It was private property.

And now a ruling from the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals means the family will retain ownership of the parcel, about 300 feet by 50 feet, and receive $1.5 million from the city in exchange for a tiny easement.

The Pacific Legal Foundation argued in court on behalf of the Chmielewski family in their lawsuit against St. Pete Beach.

PLF said the “trouble started several years ago, when the city opened a public arts center inside of a private subdivision, landward and across the street from the Chmielewski’s home.”

“The Chmielewski family lived in the modest beachfront home since the 1970s. They owned the land from their home, all the way down the dry, sandy beach to the mean high water line. It was a peaceful place for the family until the city invited the public to start partying on their land,” PLF said.

“In 2003, the City renovated its arts center, put up signs directing the public to the beach, and cleared a private trail running from the arts center to the private beach and through the Chmielewski’s backyard. The City rezoned the private beach as a public park and held public events like weddings and tournaments in the Chmielewski’s backyard. Once, a police officer even kicked a Chmielewski family member off their own property, because the city’s event was private. As a result of all of these activities, the public understood that the public could use the Chmielewski’s beach.”

But the city never owned the land, and when one court action – a quiet title action confirming the family’s ownership of the private property – didn’t convince the city to leave the land alone, the family sued.

The jury determined the parcel belonged to the family and awarded $1.5 million in damages.

The city appealed, but the higher court found no reason to change the ruling.

Explained PLF: “The city argued that it should not be held responsible for trespassing by the public. But as we explained in our brief, the city must be held responsible for an unconstitutional taking when it either intends for the public to trespass or when the public’s invasion is the foreseeable result of the city’s actions.”

The court noted that the city encouraged the public to trespass by clearing a sidewalk next to the family’s home, posting “beach access” signs, removed a barricade the family placed across its sidewalk, installing parking meters adjacent to the access point, encouraging arts center patrons to access to beach, allowing weddings and other events to be held on the private land and holding a mayor’s Wiffle Ball tournament there.

It was during that event that a police officer ejected a member of the family from its own property.

“The city’s actions, therefore, imposed a de facto public access easement across the Chmielewskis’ property.”

The ruling noted that an easement was the minimum the city needed to allow people to cross the family’s property, because beach below the mean high water line belongs to the public.

Explained PLF: “Today’s decision also makes clear, as we argued, that government may not evade constitutional property rights protections by claiming it did not intend to turn private property into public property. It is enough that the government authorized and encouraged the public itself to go on private land through a series of separate and often informal acts.”

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