For at least four decades, this stretch of white-sand beach on the north end of Canaveral National Seashore has been a sun-drenched mecca for men and women devoted to the barest of pleasures: frolicking in the buff.
From around the state, the nation and even Europe, nudists, naturists and just plain skinny-dippers showed up here to share a remote central Florida oceanfront where they could doff both apparel and inhibitions and spend the day sunbathing, fishing, playing volleyball and socializing.
And for years, no one seemed to care.
But as the nudists’ numbers grew, they began to spill south into areas populated by those who do not consider clothing anything near optional. The result, in the words of park superintendent Wendell Simpson, was “a major user conflict.”
So, backed by park officials and conservative religious groups, local commissioners passed an ordinance that bans nudity and “insufficient” beach attire.
While the law covers all of Brevard County, its intent was to cover the bare-bottomed habitues of this section of the national park, called Playalinda Beach.
The next step, of course, was predictable. The issue went from bathing suits versus no suits--to lawsuits.
In a complaint filed this month in U.S. District Court, Frank J. Cervasio, president of the Central Florida Naturists, argues that the law violates his group’s constitutional right to go naked.
“Nudity should be a non-issue,” said Cervasio, 40, an Orlando resident who describes himself as a retired small businessman. “If people don’t like this type of activity, they don’t have to view it by going there.”
But Simpson says the problem is not that easily solved. “I’m not saying nude sunbathing is inappropriate,” he said. “But in the last year the naturists have greatly expanded their area, and we need some way to control it.”
Nonetheless, since the ordinance was passed in May by a 3-2 vote, no arrests have been made, and the local sheriff, C.W. (Jake) Miller, has made it clear that he has better things to do that round up naked people.
“We will respond to complaints, but we don’t have the manpower to have a deputy posted at the beach,” said Sgt. Ed Pellasce, a department spokesman.
Miller has also said he is reluctant to make arrests until after the federal courts hear Cervasio’s lawsuit.
Last month nudists were encouraged when the National Park Service installed signs on the northern end of the beach advising visitors: “Beyond This Point You May Encounter Nude Sunbathers,” and--from the other direction--"Entering Clothed Area.”
Those signs, they argue, seem to give nudity official status along that stretch of seashore.
But local residents such as Patricia Charpentier say the nudists cannot be trusted to stay north of the signs.
“When my husband and I go to the beach with our children, we have to cross over the dunes first to see that there are no naked people there,” she said. “There is a lot of lewd and lascivious behavior, and it’s inappropriate. We have lost that beach.”
Added Randy O’Brien, a county commissioner who voted for the ordinance: “No one has the right to go naked in public and to expose his genitals to me or my family.” He says complaints of indecent behavior among nudists have been rising.
Named as defendants in Cervasio’s lawsuit are the county, Miller and Simpson, who is accused of violating nudists’ civil rights.
David Wasserman, attorney for Cervasio, calls Simpson “an unofficial lobbyist for the religious right.”
Simpson denies that. But he says he has asked his bosses in Washington to come up with some regulations that would make nudity a crime on federal park lands.
“When I came here, there were small numbers of nude sunbathers on the beach, and they stayed maybe half a mile from the last parking area,” Simpson said. “But they started advertising, and the numbers began to swell.
“My agenda never has been to wipe out nude sunbathing. But I can’t manage the situation if I don’t have any tools to control it.”
As the dispute rages, naked beach-goers like Jimmie Thompson worry that the controversy and legal wrangling could bring clouds to their slice of Eden.
“Frankly, I came here for the first time 16 years ago because I wanted to see naked women,” Thompson, 35, said on a recent Sunday morning as he settled into his canvas beach chair, wearing nothing but a ball cap, a gold chain and an all-over tan.
“But then I realized this was about something different,” said Thompson, who runs an Orlando custodial service. “Without clothes, people are all equal. I have friends who are doctors, lawyers, police officers, even clergymen.
“And what we have in common is that we enjoy the freedom of being without clothes in a beautiful environment.”