By Kimberly Miller, Palm Beach Post
PALM BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Tucked inside the opulence of Palm Beach is a street dotted with shotgun-style cottages more reminiscent of Hemingway’s Key West than flamboyant Henry Flagler.
Root Trail, a modest passage without the pomp of manicured swales, leads east to the Atlantic through a simple beach cut-through slotted between private properties. But the once obscure conduit from road to ocean is now embroiled in a century-old mystery and legal tug-of-war that could see the path padlocked forever.
Since a time when the island was predominantly tangles of black mangrove, saw palmetto and cabbage palms, beachgoers have used Root Trail to reach the ocean. Even as the island fortified its shores with walls and gates and restrictions that limited hours, outlawed surfing and forbade “throwing missiles,” the Root Trail beach entrance remained open.
Then, earlier this year, the Town of Palm Beach got a permit request to install a 6-foot-tall 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 questioned how they could get ownership to something dedicated to the entire subdivision,” said town zoning manager Paul Castro about Root Trail Partners during an Oct. 10 council meeting.
The question would uncover a puzzle of more-than-100-year-old documents, some carefully handwritten in a delicate cursive that still listed Palm Beach as part of Dade County — before their separation in 1909. They led town officials to believe earlier this year that the town itself owned the land, which was deeded to it by one of the tony enclave’s founders.
Public vs. Private Beach Access
With a burgeoning population of mainlanders, Palm Beach has struggled recently to balance public beach access with the privacy and order expected by the well-heeled community. It’s a tumult that exacerbates the Root Trail stalemate as public beach entrances face more constraints in attempts to limit non-islanders’ access, and even block Palm Beachers who don’t live on Root Trail from using the beach path.
“I doubt this is a situation that is unique to Palm Beach,” said Liz Maass, a retired judge and island resident who is working with the parties to sort out ownership. “I think you just have people with bigger egos and more money here.”
And while a squabble over a 20-foot entrance may seem petty, Maass, whose sister lives near Root Trail, said the town shouldn’t just surrender public property if it thinks it has a right 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 to Palm Beach from Chicago in the late 1800s near the time when Flagler opened the luxurious Georgian-style Royal Poinciana Hotel, the extravagant beachfront Breakers resort and the lavish Gilded Age mansion Whitehall.
The Roots bought a slice of land from the Lake Worth Lagoon to the ocean. Enoch served as the town’s postmaster and also was on the first town council after voting in 1911 to incorporate as a way of escaping annexation by West Palm Beach.
But Enoch, who is buried next to his wife at the Woodlawn Cemetery in West Palm Beach, was also a painter. He bought cottages on the then sandy road that would ultimately bear his surname, renting them to artists.
That creative energy remains today in the Root Trail bungalows, some 95 years old and smaller than 1,000 square feet, but valued at more than $1 million. “Margaritaville” singer Jimmy Buffett and his wife, Jane, own two properties on Root Trail.
Some town residents said the open beach access at the end of the street is part of the neighborhood’s charm.
“I was surprised that there was even debate about whether it was public,” said lifelong Palm Beach resident Kent Anderson about the Root Trail beach entrance. “I’m 36 years old and I’ve been using — and it has definitely been public access for people — since at least the early 1980s.”
In an October memo, town officials said a quit claim deed recorded in 1912 and signed by the Roots gave the 10 northern feet of the beach access trail to the town as a public road to be kept open and maintained by the town for the benefit of the public and the Root Trail lot owners.
“This contradicts the claim of Root Trail Partners, LLC, that it privately owns title to the beach access property free and clear of any rights of the public,” the memo said.
A second quit claim deed filed the same year and signed by former resident Dorinda H. Brelsford also gives the southern half of the path to the town, the memo said.
Palm Beach County’s property appraiser’s office shows the 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 town isn’t disputing the condominium ownership.
A 30-Year-Old Mystery
The north 10 feet, however, is a different story, and how it got into private ownership is still uncertain.
Guy Rabideau, an attorney for Root Trail Partners, said the property was bought at a tax deed auction after a tax sale certificate was filed in 1991. Tax deeds are sold after an investor has bought delinquent tax debt — called certificates — from the county with the ability to get repaid with interest by the property owner.
If the owner doesn’t pay off the debt in a certain number of years, the certificate holder can file for a tax deed on the property and sell it at auction. County records reflect a tax deed for the northern 10 feet of the Root Trail beach access entrance was sold to PB Harizons Inc. for $4,560 in March 1995. The land sold again in 2001, and was sold again to Root Ocean Property in 2008 for $25,000. The same year, property records show it was sold by special warranty deed to Root Trail Partners for $5,000.
“Town staff questions how three previous owners and Root Trail Partners, LLC, took title to the property since 1995,” the October memo states. “How could a private entity make application; pay the taxes and obtain a tax deed from the Palm Beach County Tax Collector on what appears to be public property?”
Still, Rabideau also argues the Root’s deed to the town was never legitimate anyway because the couple sold lots that had dedicated use of that beach access. They couldn’t give land to the town that was already part of someone else’s platted property.
“I realize that this is an uncomfortable situation,” said Palm Beach town councilman Lew Crampton at a meeting earlier this month. “But we as a body need to start thinking about how seriously we are going to take this public access issue.”
The Root Trail controversy came to a head after residents who own properties that extend onto a private part of the beach complained about rowdy beachgoers, overflow garbage and trespassing that got worse as people sought respite from Covid-19 restrictions during the summer.
The undisputed public entrances to the beach in an eight-block area north of The Breakers are Sunset Avenue, Dunbar Road and Wells Road, but Root Trail is widely used because it was close to free two-hour public parking.
Rabideau said his clients want to work with Root Trail property owners so that they can have access to the beach through the entrance, possibly with a coded lock. The general public would still be blocked.
“The owners of Root Trail Partners are and have always been civic-minded, and that will continue,” he said in a letter to the town council.
If Root Trail Partners and the condominium are allowed to install the gate, the area will be landscaped, maintained, and a protective berm added at no expense to taxpayers, Rabideau said. If the town asserts its ownership “crime will continue, if not increase, and the quiet enjoyment of their homes will be lost to all residents on Root Trail,” he said in the letter.
Town attorney Skip Randolph is considering a legal maneuver called “prescriptive easement” that could allow the Root Trail access to remain open to the public.
Deputy Town Manager Jay Boodheshwar said Randolph expects to present his findings and recommendations the first week of 2021.
“If everyone could agree on what the facts are, the law will lead you to a conclusion,” Maass said. “The hard part is getting people to agree on what the facts are.”