Banning the beach? Locals start enforcing new access law - Florida Politics

Banning the beach? Locals start enforcing new access law

“It is so confusing.”

That’s the takeaway of Walton County Sheriff Michael Adkinson Jr., regarding the state of public access to private beaches following the enactment of HB 631.

Adkinson spoke with Florida Politics after a Facebook posting over the weekend appeared to show a confrontation resulting from the new law in Walton County’s Santa Rosa Beach area.

According to Ryan Nesset, who authored the post and appears to oppose the law actively, “The two ladies were told they were trespassing on a private beach in Walton County, Florida today.

“They were told if they did not move they would be arrested, all thanks to the new private beach law that went into effect on July 1. The law removed the customary use ordinance that the county had that said all the beaches are for the public.”

His post had nearly two thousand shares at the time of this article’s publishing.

Adkinson, however, says the characterization is overblown, noting the women agreed to leave before ever being threatened with arrest.

In the past, the public has been allowed to use certain portions of these private beaches under what’s known as “customary use.”

The Florida Supreme Court has ruled that private beachside property owners cannot restrict access to the beach for people who have used the area for years, so long as that use had been “ancient, reasonable, without interruption and free from dispute.”

Many feared HB 631 would change that reality. The bill went into effect on July 1 after being signed into law by Gov. Rick Scott back in March.

The law aimed to change the process by which local governments could ensure public access to privately-owned beaches.

Previously, city and county governments were able just to pass an ordinance granting public access to those privately-owned beaches.

But HB 631 pre-empted local governments from taking that action the future. Instead, if a local government wanted to make those beaches available to the public, it would must first to sue the private landowners and obtain approval for a new ordinance from a judge.

To be clear, this law did not affect publicly-owned beaches. Examples include Miami Beach, which is owned by the city, or any beaches which are part of Florida’s state parks system. Those beaches have always been, and will remain, open to the public.

But access to private beaches has changed, according to Adkinson: “You can’t be on these beaches without permission.”

He says under HB 631, beaches that are part of private property are now equivalent to a person’s backyard. “There’s absolutely no difference between a neighborhood home in the middle of somewhere, and walking on the beach.”

That stands in stark contrast to statements from some supporters of the bill.

“Our right to enjoy the beaches is protected by the Florida Constitution,” wrote GOP state Rep. Paul Renner of Flagler County, a supporter of HB 631. “Neither the Legislature nor the county can interfere, period.” Renner also is slated to be House Speaker in 2022-24.

He made those comments in a guest article for the Palm Coast Observer. In it, he argued public access to these beaches would remain.

“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.”

The only changes, he argued, would be the process by which local governments could enact “customary use” ordinances.

“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.”

Scott’s Communications Director John Tupps also issued a statement to Florida Politics disputing the law’s effect. “This law does not ‘ban’ or privatize in any beach in Florida. If a local government wants to expand the public beach area, this bill simply outlines the legal process to accomplish that.”

Tupps also noted the bill received support from Democrats as well, including state Rep. Katie Edwards-Walpole. “We’re not talking about privatizing beaches,” she said to the House Judiciary Committee, in comments reported by the Tampa Bay Times.

Not so, Adkinson says. And he warns other counties may be dealing with this issue in the future.

“Anybody that is saying this doesn’t affect them, or ‘we don’t have this problem,’ simply does not understand the issue.”

Further complicating matters, there remain areas on private beaches where public access is still allowed, even under the new law. Regions undergoing nourishment are one such exception, and Adkinson says this was the source of the confusion regarding the women from Nesset’s Facebook post.

“They were saying where they were was re-nourished. And it actually was not.” The sheriff says after the women were informed they were not in a nourishment area, they voluntarily left.

But Adkinson also says he hopes Walton County settles this issue soon, even if that means going to court to secure the ability to pass a new ordinance.

He made clear he’s not taking a public position on the law, and is there to enforce the rules either way. But he says the public should be spared from such confusing changes regarding what is and isn’t allowed.

Case in point, the 1st Judicial Circuit State Attorney’s Office, which covers Walton County, reversed positions in a week over whether to prosecute trespassing on private beaches.

After originally saying prosecuting such offenses would be unfair before a court’s decision on a new ordinance, the office changed course and said decisions would be made on a case-by-case basis to “determine if criminal charges are appropriate.”

Nevertheless, Adkinson says his sheriffs aren’t looking to arrest anyone outright.

“We are not going to be actively arresting people for trespassing. We are going to mediate, and we are going to find ways to mitigate this issue and balance the best interests of the public and the rights of the private property owner.”

Ryan Nicol covers news out of South Florida for Florida Politics. Ryan is a native Floridian who attended undergrad at Nova Southeastern University before moving on to law school at Florida State. After graduating with a law degree he moved into the news industry, working in TV News as a writer and producer, along with some freelance writing work. If you'd like to contact him, send an email to ryan.t.nicol@gmail.com.

27 Comments

  1. So, if now the homeowners can claim the beach as private property, are their tax assessments going to be revised to reflect the larger lots and the enhancements to property values?

    1. Their tax assessments already show the lot to include the beach. That’s the problem. Their deeds and tax documents include 200 ft of the beach.

    2. That makes the property FAR, FAR more valuable, so the tax assessments should skyrocket if access for people is blocked.

      Unless this is just a gift to wealthy beach front owners.

      1. Gift to the wealthy? Surely you jest sir. When has that ever happened! But lets see what happens when a hurricanes high surf washes erodes the “now private” beach away

    3. As a Florida resident I would like to know if these “private” beaches will receive nourishment paid for with public tax dollars?

  2. If Florida resisdents want the beaches to be private then all of us that go to the beach on vacation each year should stop going. Florida makes Millions of dollars each year on tourism from people going to the beach. If we stopped going for a year or two your state would be in ruines and the value of your homes would be worthless. Not a good move Florida

  3. Just a note….those are NOT Walton County Sheriff Officers. They are security guards hired by homeowners.

  4. The republican controlled legislature….responding to demands of their ocean and gulf front contributors rammed this bill through. And it IS being actively enforced in Pinellas County. Interview the volunteer turtle trackers who are being harassed….for trying to walk the beach to protect endangered species!

  5. Golden Beach in FL Is a great example the border line is wet sand u walk in dry sand is considered trasspasing

  6. So if there is beach erosion, will the private owners provide the beach replenishment or will it be the city or county?

    1. That’s part of the problem. There has not been any beach renourishment. The owners own 200 ft of beach (on their deeds and tax documents) and as the beach eroded, Walton County opted to take private land rather than actually fixing the beach.

  7. Who let them buy the beach, and how much did they pay for it? Who are the owners? Can an agreement be made for open use between the hours of 8am and 8pm. So no one’s day at the beach gets ruined. Can the owners get a Tax break for agreeing so everyone is happy???

  8. I live here in Florida. I have been attending all of the meetings concerning this issue and this House Bill. I can only say is that if you wish to point fingers. Point all of the fingers towards Walter E. Blessey Jr and Governor Rick Scott. Mr. Blessey is going county to county suing them for this house bill. Rick Scott got a fine chunk of change to accept and sign the House Bill. As for the person who basically is saying “Boycott Florida” Dude… Really? So yes Florida is a Newly Wed and a Nearly Dead kind of state where tourists come in and create revenue and jobs for the locals who live here. I am sure the state that you live in has tourism there and charge a premium for whatever your state advertises. All States have tourism All states have a TDC (Tourist Development Committee) that solely focus on improvements to getting more tourists to come to the State. Tourism creates jobs which helps the economy. It’s not like the rest of us locals were like “YES MAKE OUR BEACHES PRIVATE!!!” We are actually having to tiptoe through the sand just enjoy spending time in an overcrowded beach that is worse for wear. Now because these beaches have became private property. I am wondering that when a storm comes by will the Counties have to fix the beaches or is it solely up to the Homeowner to fix the beach, clean the beach, and make sure it looks presentable? Because if they request that the county that they live in to maintain a private beach or beaches, then they shouldn’t have jumped on the bandwagon for privatizing the beach… I swear people are just becoming more idiotic and Idiocracy is now becoming a documentary and not just a funny movie to watch… Good Luck and God Bless….

        1. Cory Mays does this affect the mean high tide rule? Can people still walk along the beach by the water or does the private beach to all the way to the water?

  9. Can we see the body cam?? I walked away but talked to one of the women and she said they would be arrested if she did not move.

    1. I don’t understand how one can own the beach. The beaches were here before anyone bought any property. This is ridiculous.

      1. By that logic, owning land at all should not be allowed. After all, it was all here “before anyone bought any property.” That is truly ridiculous.

  10. The High Water mark still leaves a generous amount of Beach for everyone else. If they start kicking people off of this low water tide level, then it is so wrong and should be opposed.

  11. The bottom line is, all the tourist and vacation home owners who do not own ocean front property cannot all fit on the current beach space designated for public use. We would have to “draw a number” and/or “wait our turn” to be able to enjoy the beach!

  12. Florida’s beaches should be open to the public everywhere. There should be no beaches that citizens cannot access, use and enjoy. That being said, if there are, then I do not want my tax dollars going to repair someone’s “private” beach, nor to pay for damage done by hurricanes, etc. You bought it. You own it. You want it to be for your use only. Then you pay for all costs associated with it. No dollars from tax payers to rebuild your private property.

    1. I so agree. Sounds like a class-action lawsuit should be in order to sue the state and counties when they use our tax dollars to fix their private beach we can not use.

  13. So what happens when a hurricane comes through and wipes out the beach area, who’s paying for it’s repair/reclamation, the private owner, hell no, it will be the taxes the general public pays!

  14. https://youtu.be/hnZMLPPDlVE

    They lie always and they are enforcing people to create a line to set in the water. Let’s take our $ to fix the beach and star a movement to take them to court. It’s not right , We need to find the page to make a claim agains this people. Anybody knows how?

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