Can the Wealthy Town of Golden Beach Really Ban the Public From Its Sand?

Getting onto the beach in the tiny Miami-Dade town of Golden Beach is no easy feat. There's no public access onto the sand, and anyone driving into town must enter through a gate that snaps their picture.

But say, for argument's sake, you find yourself walking south from Hallandale Beach or north from Sunny Isles Beach with a towel, a chair, and a plan to catch some rays. That's when you'll notice the signs: Non-residents, they sternly warn, must walk only along the water's edge or risk arrest for trespassing. The signs say that homeowners' private property extends 50 feet from the signs. 

Say what? In Miami-Dade, where virtually all beaches are public, can Golden Beach — a 0.3-square-mile municipality with 919 (mostly) very wealthy residents — really keep the masses off its sand?

It seems there's no clear-cut legal answer. 

After a reader sent in photos of the signs, New Times asked experts to explain where the boundary lies between private and public sand in Florida. Simple, they said: The dividing line is something called the "mean high-tide line." That's the place where the water intersects the land over an 18.6-year lunar cycle.

Lost yet? The problem is, there's no real way to locate that boundary on any given Florida beach.

"I can go to the beach, and no one can tell you where the mean high-tide line is," says Thomas Ruppert, an attorney and coastal planning specialist with the University of Florida extension in Coral Gables. "Beaches are one of the state's biggest financial assets due to tourism, and you'd think we'd know more about their ownership, but we don't... It's ridiculously confusing."

Even Stephen Helfman, Golden Beach's town attorney, says he isn't sure how much of the beach is private.

"I don't know where the mean high-water line is as it relates to each of the individual properties," Helfman says. "Whether that 50 feet is accurate, I am not sure."
Although the signs are marked with the town seal, Helfman says Golden Beach posted them simply as a courtesy to residents who believe the beach is private property.

"We're doing it on behalf of residents," he says. "It's not our land, not the town's land. We don't own or claim any right to it."

Helfman says he isn't sure where the 50-foot number came from but believes it dates back many years.

"I'm sure there was some rationale for that distance, but I don't know what it is. I wasn't involved in that," he says.

Thomas Ankersen, a University of Florida law professor who studies public beach access, tells New Times that if the water is not at high tide, the "wet sand" part of the beach is almost always public. 

"At a minimum, the signs seem intended to chill the enthusiasm of beachgoers who don’t own the beachfront property," he says.

The only real way to test the boundary is to take it to court, says Ruppert, the Coral Gables-based specialist.

"Somebody has to get sued, or somebody has to get trespassed," he says. "It depends on your willingness to get in an unfortunate situation. You might actually have a right to do it, but it depends whether or not you're willing to put up with a landowner coming to yell at you and potentially call the cops."

Anyone feel like throwing a party on the sand in Golden Beach to test some legal theory?
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Jessica Lipscomb is the former news editor of Miami New Times.