Nestled in the opulence of Palm Beach is a street dotted with shotgun-style cottages that are more reminiscent of Hemingway’s Key West than the flamboyant Henry Flagler.
Root Trail, a modest passage without the glitz of well-maintained swales, leads east to the Atlantic via a simple beach crossing split between private properties. But the time obscure leads from the road to the ocean is now embroiled in a century-old mystery and a legal tussle that could see the path locked forever.
From a time when the island was mostly made up of tangles of black mangrove, saw palmetto, and cabbage palm, beachgoers have used Root Trail to reach the ocean. Even as the island fortified its shores with walls, gates, and restrictions limiting hours of operation, banning surfing, and prohibiting “launching missiles,” the entrance to Root Trail Beach remained open.
Then, earlier this year, the City of Palm Beach received a permit application to install a 6-foot-high locked gate along the 20-foot-wide opening. Two entities say they own the property – Root Trail Partners claims the north 10 feet, while the Ocean Towers Condominium Association claims the south 10 feet.
“I wondered how they could own something dedicated to the whole subdivision,” city zoning director Paul Castro said of Root Trail Partners at a council meeting on May 10. october.
The question would reveal a jigsaw of documents over 100 years old, some neatly handwritten in delicate cursive that still listed Palm Beach as part of Dade County — before they split in 1909. They brought officials from the City to Believe earlier this year where the city itself owned the land, given to it by one of the founders of the Tony Enclave.
Access to the public or private beach
With a booming mainland population, Palm Beach has recently struggled to balance public beach access with the privacy and order expected by the affluent community. It’s an uproar that exacerbates Root Trail’s stalemate as entrances to public beaches face more restrictions in an attempt to limit access for non-islanders, and even keep out Palm Beachers who don’t live on Root. Trail to use the beach path.
“I doubt this is a situation unique to Palm Beach,” said Liz Maass, a retired judge and island resident who is working with the parties to settle the property issue. “I think you just have people with bigger egos and more money here.”
And while a squabble over a 20-foot driveway may seem petty, Maass, whose sister lives near Root Trail, said the city shouldn’t just cede public property if it thinks it’s entitled to it.
“But if it’s private, then it’s private, and my sister will have to learn to live with it,” Maass said.
Enoch Root and his wife Victoria moved from Chicago to Palm Beach in the late 1800s, around the time Flagler opened the luxurious Georgian-style Royal Poinciana Hotel, the extravagant Breakers beachfront resort, and the lavish Gilded Age Whitehall mansion.
The Roots purchased a slice of land from the Lake Worth lagoon to the ocean. Enoch served as the city’s postmaster and also served on the first city council after voting in 1911 to incorporate as a means of escaping annexation by West Palm Beach.
But Enoch, who is buried next to his wife in Woodlawn Cemetery in West Palm Beach, was also a painter. He bought chalets on the then sandy road which would eventually bear his surname, renting them out to artists.
That creative energy lives on today in the Root Trail Bungalows, 95 years old and less than 1,000 square feet in size but valued at over $1 million. “Margaritaville” singer Jimmy Buffett and his wife, Jane, own two properties on Root Trail.
Some townspeople said the open beach access at the end of the street was part of the neighborhood’s charm.
“I was surprised there was even a debate about whether it was public,” said lifelong Palm Beach resident Kent Anderson of the Root Trail beach entrance. “I’m 36 and I’ve been using – and it’s definitely public access for people – since at least the early 1980s.”
In an October memo, city officials said a quitclaim deed registered in 1912 and signed by the Roots gave the 10 feet north of the beach access trail to the city as a public road ahead. be kept open and maintained by the city for the benefit of the public and owners of Root Trail lots.
“This contradicts Root Trail Partners, LLC’s assertion that it privately holds title to the beach access property, free and clear of public interest,” the memo reads.
A second quitclaim deed filed the same year and signed by former resident Dorinda H. Brelsford also gives the southern half of the way to town, the memo says.
The Palm Beach County Real Estate Appraiser’s Office lists Ocean Towers Condominium as the owner of the south side of the trail, with the north side owned by Root Trail Partners. Castro said at the October meeting that the city is not contesting ownership of the condo.
A 30-year-old mystery
The North 10ft, however, is another story, and how it became privately owned is still unclear.
Guy Rabideau, attorney for Root Trail Partners, said the property was purchased at a tax deed auction after a tax sale certificate was filed in 1991. The tax deeds are being sold after a investor bought an overdue tax debt – called certificates – from the county with the possibility of being repaid with interest by the owner.
If the owner does not repay the debt within a certain number of years, the certificate holder can file a tax deed on the property and sell it at auction. County records indicate that a tax deed for the 10 feet north of the Root Trail beach access entrance was sold to PB Harizons Inc. for $4,560 in March 1995. The land was resold in 2001 and was sold back to Root Ocean Property in 2008 for $25,000. . In the same year, ownership records show it was sold by special deed to Root Trail Partners for $5,000.
The city says the sale of the tax deed “unknowingly conveyed title to the city’s public right-of-way to a private entity.”
“City staff are questioning how three previous owners and Root Trail Partners, LLC acquired title to the property since 1995,” the October memo reads. “How could a private entity apply; pay taxes and get a tax deed from the Palm Beach County tax collector on what appears to be public property? »
Yet Rabideau also argues that Root’s deed to the city was never legitimate anyway because the couple sold lots that had dedicated use for that beach access. They couldn’t give land to the city that was already part of someone else’s property.
“I realize this is an uncomfortable situation,” Palm Beach Councilman Lew Crampton said during a meeting earlier this month. “But we, as an organization, need to start thinking about how seriously we’re going to take this issue of public access.”
The Root Trail controversy erupted after residents who own properties that stretch onto a private stretch of beach complained about rowdy bathers, overflowing trash and trespassing which worsened as people sought respite Covid-19 restrictions during the summer.
The undisputed public entrances to the beach in an area eight blocks north of The Breakers are Sunset Avenue, Dunbar Road, and Wells Road, but Root Trail is widely used as it was close to free two-hour public parking.
In response to complaints from residents, the city has since changed free parking zones to $5 an hour, increased police presence, and installed gates in Sunset, Dunbar and Wells that are locked between 9:30 p.m. and 5:30 a.m.
Rabideau said his clients want to work with Root Trail landowners so they can access the beach through the driveway, possibly with a code lock. The general public would still be blocked.
“The owners of Root Trail Partners are and always have been civic, and will continue to do so,” he said in a letter to city council.
If Root Trail Partners and the condominium are allowed to install the gate, the area will be landscaped, maintained and a protective berm will be added at no cost to ratepayers, Rabideau said. If the city asserts ownership, “crime will continue, if not increase, and the quiet enjoyment of their homes will be lost to all residents of Root Trail,” he said in the letter.
City attorney Skip Randolph is considering a legal maneuver called a “prescriptive easement” that could allow Root Trail access to remain open to the public.
Deputy City Manager Jay Boodheshwar said Randolph expects to present his findings and recommendations the first week of 2021.
“If everyone could agree on the facts, the law will lead you to a conclusion,” Maass said. “The hardest part is getting people to agree on the facts.”