A lot of misinformation has been circulated about my views on customary use. In spite of my many posts and countless conversations over several years, there is still confusion about where I stand on this extremely critical issue. I hope I can adequately clarify how I view this confusing and volatile subject.
First, I want to make it clear that I favor the right of the public to access and enjoy our beautiful beaches. I am adamantly against barriers and hostile signs; I believe they detract from the natural beauty for which the beaches are enjoyed. I also believe the confrontational actions from both sides are not constructive. Enjoyment of the beaches by local residents did not create this crisis; the fairly recent phenomenon of millions of tourists converging on them and the behavior of some has gotten us in the predicament we are in.
Inappropriate behavior and the trashing of not only the beaches in front of private homes, but on the public beaches as well, has been out of control for years. Twenty years ago, my wife I were volunteers with South Walton Turtle Watch. I always carried a large trash bag, and it did not take very long to fill it up. We did this for several years and never saw any reduction in the amount of trash, quite the opposite.
Had we properly staffed code enforcement and dealt swiftly and firmly with that inappropriate abuse, we might not be spending the huge amount of money we are now spending to collect tons of trash yearly. And, we may not have gotten the beachfront owners so exasperated that they took their current position. Although we have increased our code enforcement staff, I don’t think it is near enough to adequately cover the beaches and stringently deal with abuse. Only in recent years did the County start buying beach front property, and that needs to continue.
Another area of concern I have is the proliferation of beach vendors and the thousands of umbrellas and chairs on our public beaches. While I have a soft spot for these hardworking entrepreneurs, and I believe they perform a valued service to our tourists (and possibly to some locals), I think we have to look at ways to prevent so many being set up and never occupied. This keeps a large number of beach goers with no place to go.
Lastly, I believe HB 631 should be repealed or radically amended because it created a lot of confusion and obviously targeted Walton County. I have sent that request to Governor Scott. I have also asked the Board of County Commissioners to offer a six month hold on litigation if the beachfront owners will agree and make a final effort to avoid years of enormously expensive legal fees.
We have radical activists on both sides of this issue, but I believe they are a small number. Most people truly want to be civil, tolerant and friendly as we locals enjoy our beaches and continue to attract the tourists that are so vital to our economy. Sadly, without reasonable compromise from both sides, we are presently headed to court for years of expensive litigation and I don’t see any way to stop that.
Bill Fletcher is a resident of Freeport and a candidate for Walton County Commission District 4.