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Chmielewski v. City of St. Pete Beach

United States Court of Appeals, Eleventh Circuit

May 16, 2018

PAUL CHMIELEWSKI, et al., Plaintiffs-Appellees,
THE CITY OF ST. PETE BEACH, Defendant-Appellant.

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the Middle District of Florida D.C. Docket No. 8:13-cv-03170-JDW-MAP

          Before ED CARNES, Chief Judge, and NEWSOM and SILER, [*] Circuit Judges.

          SILER, Circuit Judge:

         In this appeal of an inverse condemnation action, Defendant-Appellant the City of St. Pete Beach ("the City") challenges a jury verdict in favor of Plaintiffs Katherine A. Chmielewski and Paul Chmielewski, as personal representative of the estate of Chester Chmielewski ("the Chmielewskis"). The underlying dispute involves a beachfront parcel, owned by the Chmielewskis, which experienced significant public usage. At trial, the jury found that the City encouraged and invited access by the general public, causing a seizure of the Chmielewskis' residential property and a taking of their beach parcel. After trial, the district court denied the City's motions for judgment as a matter of law and for a new trial. For the following reasons, we AFFIRM.


         The beachfront property at issue in this case is located in the Don CeSar Place Subdivision in St. Pete Beach, Florida. The subdivision includes two blocks-Block M and Block N-that run parallel to the Gulf of Mexico. Between Block N to the north and Block M to the south stands the Don CeSar Hotel ("the Hotel") and the Hotel's privately-owned beach property. The Chmielewskis' home sits adjacent to Block M, three lots south of the Hotel. They purchased this lot in 1972, and as part of a 1975 insurance settlement, they acquired title to the beachfront portion of Block M contiguous to their residence, confirming that their property extended across Block M to the mean high water line ("MHWL") of the Gulf. This property-the "beach parcel"-is approximately 300 feet deep (east-west) and includes 50 feet of the Block M sidewalk, dunes, and sand. Under Florida law, the beach area between the water and the MHWL is available for public use, regardless of ownership in the Subdivision.

         Chmielewskis' Ownership Rights

         In 2006, the Chmielewskis initiated a quiet title action against the City, the Hotel, and the Don CeSar Place Property Association to confirm their ownership of the beach parcel. The Chmielewskis obtained partial summary judgment in 2008, establishing their fee simple ownership in the residential lot and in the contiguous strip of beach parcel, subject to a 1925 plat restriction. The restriction provides that all Don CeSar Subdivision owners retain their right to use Block M, including the Chmielewskis' beach parcel, for "beach and bathing purposes."[1] The plat also prohibits building any structure on Block M, including on the Chmielewskis' beach parcel. As part of a settlement in the quiet title action, the City agreed that its ownership of five lots in the Subdivision did not give the general public the right to use Block M, including the Chmielewskis' beach parcel.

         The original subdivision developer's residence adjoined Block M, just north of the Chmielewskis' property. During World War II, the federal government acquired that land, known as the Don Vista property. In 1975, it deeded this property to the City with the requirement that the lot ("the mini-park") could not be used for public beach access.

         City's Renovation of the Don Vista Property

         From 2003 to 2005, the City used a federal grant to renovate the developer's residence-the Don Vista Building-and turn it into a community center. As part of those renovations, the City beautified the mini-park, installed benches, and cleared a direct public access path from the mini-park across Block M to the Gulf. For good measure, the City also cleared out the overgrowth on the Block M sidewalk behind the Chmielewskis' house. At both the north and south ends of Block M, the City posted large, circular signs with the City's emblem stating "Beach Access." These signs were visible to passing motorists on E1 Centro Street.

         The City also cleared and improved the parking lot next to the Don Vista building, grassed and landscaped the area, and removed the fencing around the parking lot, as well as the chains and gate that blocked its entrance and had previously prevented after-hours entry or use. The City made the area attractive with convenient public parking to facilitate beach access. In addition, the City installed metered public parking across the street (within half a block) for Block M beach access parking and publicly announced that it had provided parking to allow the public to use the Block M beach. On its website, the City published a map showing public access to the Block M beach at the Don Vista Center. At a public meeting, the City Manager proclaimed that the City had invested lots of money to have a beautiful center and needed to put it to full use by having the visiting public use the Block M beach.

         City's Zoning Maps and Access to Beach Parcel

         While the City was renovating the Don Vista Center, it also zoned and mapped Block M, including the Chmielewski beach parcel, as "recreation open space/public park." This designated the property as a public beach for public use, inconsistent with the Chmielewskis' private ownership rights. A former director of planning testified that the City's zoning designation for Block M meant that it was for public use, including the dunes area, and he considered that area to be public. This former city planner also testified that he frequented the Block M beach as a private citizen, parking his car at the Don Vista facility and using the beach access from there. He believed that the Block M beach was public and that he was allowed to go there and engage in normal beach activities. He traversed all over Block M, observed other individuals coming and going through the property, and saw nothing to discourage these actions.

         After the renovations, the City was motivated to encourage use of the Don Vista Building and its amenities. The City also entered into an agreement with the SunTan Art Center, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, to operate the Don Vista Building as a community art center. The facility offered arts and crafts, yoga, art exhibits, and art sales. On Sundays, the Suntan Art Center hosted a flea market from 10:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m.

         Trespassers on the Chmielewskis' Beach Parcel

         At trial, witnesses testified that before the City's renovations, the Chmielewskis' property and area around it "was quiet, serene, pleasant and peaceful, with only an occasional neighbor coming to the beach and not much foot traffic or heavy use." However, after the renovations, members of the public regularly trespassed onto the Chmielewskis' property, cutting through or walking along the side of their residence from the public parking areas. People also walked up the private sidewalk in front of their house and over dunes, or from the mini-park over the dunes and across to the Chmielewskis' beach parcel. On weekends and holidays, beachgoers flocked to Block M in large numbers and onto the Chmielewskis' beach parcel, often coming down either end of Block M where City signs stated "Beach Access."

         The Chmielewskis believed the people coming onto their property were members of the general public, not subdivision residents who had a legal right to access the beach parcel. Having lived in the subdivision for forty-one years, the Chmielewskis knew their neighbors and did not recognize the people trespassing on their beach property. They testified that Don CeSar residents "generally walked to the beach for a short time; unlike the persons using Block M, they did not drive there, park in the Don Vista lot or at City parking meters, bring tents, coolers or lots of paraphernalia, stay all day or into the night, or come in large numbers." When the Chmielewskis spoke with people they encountered on their beach parcel, some said they were from out of town and others refused to answer questions.

         When Mr. Chmielewski called the City about unauthorized persons on his beach parcel, the City declined to enforce its trespassing laws. Instead, when Mr. Chmielewski placed lawn furniture on the private sidewalk in an attempt to block the public from walking across his beach parcel, City police removed the furniture and threatened to arrest him.

         The City also facilitated public use of Block M. The City Manager said people who used the Don Vista property could use Block M for a wedding. And the Chmielewskis often noticed nuptials on the beach parcel. The City held public events on Block M. It organized a large wiffle ball tournament in 2009 that occurred along Block M, including the beach parcel. Several hundred individuals attended the event. A ...

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