TALLAHASSEE — While most Floridians bring sunscreen and towels to the beach, some officials worry that fences and ropes around private property could become the next new shoreline sight in the wake of a controversial state law.
A property rights measure taking effect July 1 could prompt more waterfront homeowners to restrict public access to their beachfront, some activists say.
They fear more places could turn into surfside battlegrounds like the Panhandle’s Walton County, which prompted the new law.
“It’s been a huge fight in Walton County. But I’ve got to expect other homeowners will follow suit and start putting up fences and walling off their beach, as soon as the new law is on the books,” said Jay Lyles, a policy consultant with the Florida Wildlife Federation, which opposed the legislation (HB 631).
The Florida Constitution guarantees that any beach seaward of the usual high-tide line is public land, meaning those walking or lounging on wet sand aren’t trespassing.
Publicly owned beach, like state parks and those owned by local governments, also remain welcoming. But visitors who plant a beach umbrella on the stretch of dry sand between a private residence and the water could be threatened by the new law.
Already, Walton and Flagler counties have begun steps toward preserving public access to beaches, and an online petition this week has gathered 35,000 signatures calling for Gov. Rick Scott and lawmakers to repeal the new measure.
But repeal doesn’t look likely.
Florida lawmakers overwhelmingly approved the bill just last month, and Scott quickly signed it into law, despite critics saying it tilts the beach-access balance toward property owners and away from local governments.
When he signed it, Scott already had gotten almost 500 calls and emails about the bill, with opponents outnumbering supporters by a four-to-one margin.
The legislation overturns 2016 action by the Walton County Commission that declared the public had recreational use rights to the county’s 26-miles of dry sand beach along the turquoise Gulf of Mexico.
The move came after some residents put up “No Trespassing,” and “Private Beach” signs, fencing, and there were reports of beachgoers being told by law enforcement to leave because their towels were on private sand.
Like much of Florida, Walton County draws its share both of tourists and celebrities, with former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and Faith Hill and Tim McGraw among the county’s property owners. There are plenty of high-end beachfront homes, condos and other developments.
But county officials said the public had long-standing “customary use” of the beach, a standard that basically says beachgoers have been walking, sitting and playing on the dry sand of privately-owned beaches for years — making them public.
Some homeowners, though, saw it differently.
Four beachside communities unsuccessfully sued in federal court to have Walton County’s standard thrown out, before turning their attention to the Legislature.
Doug Russell, whose Gulf-front condominium has 96 units in it, said the county’s ordinance gave public access to the entire beach outside his building, except for a 15-foot buffer.
“Of a 200-foot beach, they took 185 feet of it, and left us with 15 feet. That’s not fair,” Russell told a state Senate committee earlier this year.
A majority of state lawmakers apparently agreed. So did Scott, whose Naples home adjoins a secluded stretch of beach.
“This law does not ‘ban’ the public from accessing private beach areas or privatize beach access in any way,” said John Tupps, a Scott spokesman. “It simply provides local governments a pathway to determine what is right for their community.”
The new law blocks any city or county from approving a customary use ordinance until it notifies affected homeowners, holds a public hearing and goes before a judge who determines whether a private beach historically has been open to visitors.
While Walton County’s customary-use ordinance would be nullified, the law allows similar provisions in Volusia and St. Johns counties to stay on the books, because they had been approved by courts.
Indeed, Volusia has been the scene of beach-access battles for generations. In a landmark 1974 case before the Florida Supreme Court, justices concluded, “No part of Florida is more exclusively hers, nor more properly utilized by her people, than her beaches.”
Walton County this month began looking to reinstate the beach access measure.
But officials say it requires a “lengthy and cumbersome” process of gathering evidence of beach use and hearing public testimony before going to a judge.
Flagler County, which doesn’t have a customary use ordinance, plans to hold a county commission workshop Monday about possibly crafting one, since the new law has clouded beach access.
“It’s gotten people’s attention about the value of our beaches,” said Amelia Scott, chair of the Volusia-Flagler chapter of the beach preservation group, Surfrider Foundation,
Other communities are watching, with some fearing the new law could hurt tourism.
“We’ve been getting a lot of calls from our members, because a lot are confused,” said Diana Ferguson, attorney for the Florida Shore and Beach Preservation Association, which helps cities and counties with beach renourishment and management issues.
“There is a fear out there that more homeowners are going to push back and say you can’t use a beach because it’s private,” she said.
The legislative sponsors of the measure, Rep. Katie Edwards-Walpole, D-Plantation, and Sen. Kathleen Passidomo, R-Naples, said that having a court decide customary use of a beach is appropriate.
They said a local government should not be allowed to simply declare all its beachfront open to the public – satisfying a majority of residents but not those who see their land taken.
In a column for the Naples Daily News this month, Passidomo defended the new law, saying that no government should be able to unilaterally take something from an owner.
“We wouldn’t find it acceptable for a local government to merely pass a local ordinance, allowing for the “taking” of private property to build a road,” she wrote. “Instead we require the local government to prove in a court of law that the taking is necessary and in the public interest.”
Passidomo said a similar standard should apply to beachfront.
Organizations that opposed the new law said that while they’re disappointed Scott didn’t veto the measure, it is making many Floridians rally around their local beach.
“I think a lot of people realize, that this is our economy that’s at stake,” said Holly Parker, Surfrider’s Florida manager.