Photo/ Courtesy of Dauphin Island

Photo/ Courtesy of Dauphin Island

One of Dauphin Island’s two public beaches will revert back to private ownership by the property owner’s association in January, but town officials and the association are working to make it a seamless transition for visitors and residents.

As of Jan. 16, West Surf Beach will revert back to the Dauphin Island Property Owners Association (DIPOA) after seven years under the town’s ownership.

In 2009, the DIPOA deeded the three-mile strip of land to the town in hopes that more public beach access would help bring in federal grants for shoreline restoration projects on the island.

However, those plans never came to fruition and, according to the original agreement, the property is to revert to being a private beach once again, as it was for 56 years prior to the town’s ownership.

“This is not a public beach closing created by a decision of the DIPOA. This property is reverting back to DIPOA’s ownership by an operation of law,” attorney Dennis Knizley, who represents the association, emphasized. “The DIPOA has taken no action that caused the title to revert back to the property owners association.”

Dauphin Island Mayor Jeff Collier said the town needed to secure funding for a shoreline restoration project in order to retain its ownership of the beach. Now, Collier said, the town is working with the DIPOA to make sure the details of the transition are smooth.

“Once we do this it’s going to affect a few things like trash collections and mainly some parking issues,” Collier said. “The parking situation was set up in a way that afforded public access, but we had to balance that with private property ownership and usability, which we do a lot of.”

That balance created about 24 public access parking spaces on four or the island’s 33 streets. Beginning in January, Raphael Semmes, St. Stephens, Sam Houston and Sehoy streets will only offer permitted parking, which is available to island residents.

Domenic Carlucci, president of the DIPOA, said signs could be added as early as November letting visitors know about the change in the beach’s ownership and public parking. He added the signs could help prevent a repeat of previous confusion about public access that has caused some visitors to inadvertently trespass on privately owned property in the past.

“If someone wants to walk along the beach to get to what’s known as West Surf Beach, that’s not a problem — it’s [driving] to the waterfront that’s an issue,” Carlucci said. “Right now, one side of the street says ‘public parking’ and the other says ‘permit parking.’ On any given weekend, you’ll see 12 cars there and all 12 won’t have permits. That means the property owners and people who live on other parts of the island don’t have a place to park.”

Carlucci said the arrangement led to instances of beachgoers setting up campsites and chairs that are technically on private property. But, even with the reduction in the number of spaces, the impending change will only affect 24 of roughly 1,000 public parking spaces available at other beach access points, according to Carlucci.

Those include the West End Beach, which is owned by the town, and the publicly accessible beach on the east end of the island that’s maintained separately by the Dauphin Island Park and Beach Board. There is also public parking available at the Isle Dauphine Golf Club, the largest property owned by the DIPOA.

However, the parking decision still isn’t finalized, as it will require an official recommendation from the DIPOA and approval from the town council, but all parties say it’s likely the recommendation will be accepted.

In the meantime, Collier said he doesn’t think the change will severely affect public access to the beaches or the city’s chances of eventually securing funding for a comprehensive shoreline restoration project. In fact, the town recently started an initiative on the East End Beach near Fort Gaines that will add approximately 300,000 cubic yards of sand to the area, among other improvements.

Like many communities, Dauphin Island’s best hope at funding future projects now rests with money available through the federal RESTORE Act.

“We’ve submitted a number of projects dealing with erosion for RESTORE Act funding, and that’s the primary opportunity for us — that post oil spill money,” Collier said. “Whether it’s from the NFWF, NRDA, the federal council or the local group doesn’t matter, if we can find the dollars, that’s a good thing.”

Updated Oct. 26 at 4 p.m. to correct the amount of sand being added to the east end of Dauphin Island. This post originally stated 3 million cubic yards of sand would be added to the island, but only 300,000 cubic yards of sand will be added during the ongoing project.