Public Lands

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In every state of the union, there is land held by the government for the people — roads, parks, preserves, waterways and more. Each year for 22 years, the National Environmental Education Foundation has encouraged citizens to get out and enjoy and help maintain those public lands on National Public Lands Day, September 24th. Locally you’ll find groups celebrating and helping to clean up at Beach Elementary on Sept 17th(starting point for Coastal Clean-up) and at Lovers Key State Park and Ding Darling Refuge on Sept 24th.

Speaking of public lands, we have a few public land related controversies of our own.

Living on an island, the question of who owns what part of the beach is a constant topic of discussion with visitors. Generally, unless a deed says otherwise, the State of Florida owns all land seaward of the mean high tide line. Determining that line is not as easy as it would seem as there is a complex formula that determines it. Mostly, folks consider it the wrack line. Unless the beach has been re-nourished, then it gets complicated.

We have 25 public beach accesses and a number of bay accesses on our island. Some of the beach accesses have parking, some don’t. No matter their size, amenities or location, the accesses are PUBLIC and owned by all town residents.

There is a tendency for both residents and our Town government to forget that fact.

When the subject of what to do with five bay accesses came up this past spring, a series of meetings were set up to gather opinions on what to do with them, but the only ones invited were those who lived on the access street.

When the Town requested and received funds from the Tourist Development Council to improve a few beach accesses and possibly add restrooms, an outraged cry went up from those who lived near beach accesses. We all got the message. No restrooms, no showers, no benches. Homeless people would use all of them. The rest of us who want to use those accesses, but might have need of a restroom, will just have to go to Newton Park or head downtown to Crescent Beach or Lynn Hall Park where there are restrooms.

We’ve maintained consistently that public land should serve the public, not just the neighbors. There are no new public accesses on our island. They’ve all been there for a very long time. Long enough, apparently, for the neighbors to have grown accustomed to their power to control how those who actually do own them — the public — use those accesses. And our Town Council has enabled that belief by caving every time a project that would add any functionality to a beach access has been proposed – radical improvements like a bench or a shower or a well-disguised mobile restroom.

If the accesses are public, we need a definition of who that public is. Exactly how many yards away from it do you have to live before you no longer have any say in what happens to a public access?

Now Estero Boulevard is under construction and we’re facing another public land debate. It’s time to bring the road into the 21st century and that requires the use of every inch of right-of-way. Unfortunately, in some areas, that’s still not enough to allow all we’d like to see added, specifically bike lanes. Bike lanes are the loser in the space crunch. In the narrow areas, bike lanes disappear and “sharrows” appear. Sharrows are simply paint on the pavement indicating that bicycles and cars must share the roadway in those sections.

The island has been abuzz for weeks about the right-of-way (ROW) near Red Coconut. Hopefully our article this week clears up some of the rumors, though it’s clear that there are some decisions yet to be made for that second section of Estero Blvd.

As with beach and bay accesses, we are in favor of the public’s right to use public land and that includes the road ROW. If the county owns 65’ of ROW, we need to use all 65’ of it. That will allow wide sidewalks, bike lanes and three lanes of roadway. We need every inch.

Anyone who owns property has the responsibility to know exactly where their property lines are. Most know that the road ROW in front of their house is wider than the actual road and use that area for landscaping knowing that the road could be expanded at any time.

Whether those who live along Estero have been using the county’s ROW for 5 years or 50, it’s still the county’s (our) land.

We need this road and we need it as wide as possible to allow for sidewalks and bike lanes.

Public land belongs to all of us, not just the people who live along Estero or next to public accesses.

All of us.

 

Missy Layfield