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Sally Swartz: Preserve free parking and open access to Martin County's beautiful beaches

Every few years, someone who doesn’t know how much Martin County residents love their beaches comes up with a new plan.

In 2003, joy-killer bureaucrats wanted to limit beach hours and make swimmers, fishermen and surfers conform to a confusing set of ever-changing rules. They finally figured out lifeguards are too busy guarding beaches to require surfers to be tethered to their surfboards.

In 2007, the Jupiter Island Town Commission wanted to limit beach parking and hours at Hobe Sound Beach. They finally settled with the county to add parking spots at the beach and open the Town Hall lot to beach parking on weekends. Hours didn’t change.

Now the Martin County Commission, prompted by the Parks and Recreation Department and Sheriff Will Snyder, is toying with plans to add parking meters, limit beach hours and ban alcohol at county beaches.

Opinions on banning alcohol vary, but not a single Martin resident I’ve talked with supports charging to park at the beaches or limiting hours. And people are talking about it.

“They’re trying to keep us from OUR beaches again,” a woman at the gym said. Another yelled across a supermarket checkout line: “They’re doing it AGAIN!”

Martin residents know the beaches belong to them. They know they – and every other Florida resident – own every Florida beach up to the high tide mark. Trouble is, many Florida communities make it difficult for residents to get to their beaches. Martin never has.

The beautiful Palm Beach beaches have metered parking and limited spaces along the waterfront. Parks in northern Palm Beach County have better access, but visitors still must pay to get into the parks.

Martin has pushed to preserve public access from the start. Residents and school kids years ago collected money in an “S.O.B. – Save Our Beaches” campaign to buy land to open public beach access points. Residents approved bond issues and bought beachfront land.

And residents are proud that their beaches are free and open to the public. Even during the season, when parking is tough to find for those of us who live here, I’m pleased that visitors have a chance to enjoy, however briefly, what we have all year.

Our beaches bind us together. They are what we have in common. Young families use them for recreation and entertainment, and in protected areas such as Bathtub Beach, to teach kids to swim. Teens meet their friends at the beaches. The rest of us walk, swim, surf and fish on the beaches.

I’m particularly offended by the suggestion that residents should buy a $50 annual parking pass. Hey, our taxes already pay for beach maintenance. If officials pursue paid beach parking, residents should be exempt.

I’m opposed not only to paid parking but also to limiting beach hours. I once enjoyed (well, except for the mosquitoes) watching a meteor shower between midnight and 3 a.m. on a Martin County beach. Martin is one of a few places left on Florida’s east coast where light pollution has not yet obliterated the view of the night sky.

The issue of alcohol on the beaches draws mixed comments. Some oppose it, saying it spoils the fun for families when gangs of partiers take over the beaches. But a very proper woman I know asks, “Why shouldn’t I have a glass of wine while I watch the sunset at the beach?” There’s plenty of discussion needed before any conclusion on this issue.

But people seem to agree on keeping beaches free and open to the public. If Martin commissioners, the sheriff and the county’s bureaucrats pursue the ideas of paid parking and limited beach hours, they face a fight.

Sally Swartz is a former member of The Post Editorial Board. Find her blog posts and others at The Palm Beach Post Opinion Zone. Column courtesy of Context Florida.

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