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Siesta Beach is No. 1 on the list of best beaches for the summer of 2017 compiled by Stephen Leatherman, also known as Dr. Beach, a professor at Florida International University. (Chris O'Meara/AP Photo)

Emails & Opinions

Paul Renner: Under new law, the public can access Florida’s beaches, same as always

In Florida’s legislative session, a bipartisan supermajority passed a bill, House Bill 631, that provides uniformity in how we preserve the public’s recreational use of the beaches, even when a portion of that beach is on private property. In politics, nothing truly controversial gets lopsided support from both parties.

Unfortunately, some have irresponsibly chosen to spread alarm, suggesting the new law will privatize or close areas of our beaches that we enjoy today.

In a Palm Coast Observer article about an April 16 workshop, Flagler’s county administrator said this bill has “exported chaos statewide.” Flagler’s county attorney went further to say the legislation: “Totally changes the world.” The article goes on to claim that the new law “lets beachfront property owners effectively wall off portions of the beach from the public.” Nothing could be further from the truth.

Here are the real facts:

Our right to enjoy the beaches is protected by the Florida Constitution. Neither the Legislature nor the county can interfere, period.

In some cases, private property owners who live on the beach own lots that are platted to include the “dry sand” between the dunes and that high-water mark. Even though this is private property, and even though those owners are taxed on the dry sand portion of the beach, it is not uncommon that many of us use it.

Through the courts, Florida law has recognized our right to the “customary use” of that private property because we have been using it for years. Those rights are completely preserved under the law just passed. Stated differently, your rights and mine to use the beach have not changed one bit. The rights we have today are the same rights we will enjoy in the years to come.

So, what has changed?

The new law simply creates a uniform process for a county to apply to the courts to affirm areas of customary use. Without the courts involved on the front end, individual property owners could and did sue to challenge county ordinances around the state. The taxpayers were on the hook for legal fees to defend every individual case against the county and pay any damages awarded if the county got it wrong.

The new law does not change Florida law relating to customary use, so the outcome is the same; but it does streamline the process to save time and money for everyone involved, including the government and the taxpayers who fund it. That’s a good thing.

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Flagler residents should know that the law allows already passed county ordinances to stay in place. St. Johns County and Volusia County, counties I also represent, already passed ordinances. Flagler County has never adopted one. To be clear: a new county ordinance is not necessary to rescue our rights from extinction, as the article quoting county staff suggests; we will continue to enjoy those rights under Florida law, which the courts have established and the law preserves. But if our right to use the beach is really on the verge of extinction unless Flagler County steps in to pass an ordinance, why has it waited all these years to create one?

Ordinance or no ordinance, the beaches will be open this summer and into the future. Like many of you, my wife and I love our beaches. Securing the funding to restore and protect those beaches after Hurricanes Matthew and Irma was a personal priority. Last year, we secured $13.3 million specifically for the restoration of Flagler and St. Johns beaches.

I’m proud of Flagler’s County Commission, who pulled together the matching dollars for this critical project. Without working successfully together, as we did, today’s beach restoration would not have happened.

Thanks to this joint effort, the beaches are not closing, they are getting better. See you on the beach.

Paul Renner represents Flagler County and District 24 in the Florida House of Representatives. The above commentary first appeared on the PalmCoastObserver.com website.

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