A Walton County Circuit judge rejected a challenge to long-standing legal precedent Monday that allows the public to use private beaches.
Walton County private property owners sued the county over allowing “customary use” of their beaches, arguing the precedent is unconstitutionally vague and violates their private property rights. Customary use, or the position that the beaches which have historically been used by the public can remain accessible, is based on a 1974 Florida Supreme Court ruling and is the official policy of Walton County.
Judge David Green issued a ruling rejecting arguments from the plaintiffs — Northshore Holdings, LLC and Lavin Family Development, LLC — that were presented at trial on March 11. He wrote that the plaintiffs did not show grounds sufficient to demonstrate that the 1974 ruling was unconstitutional.
The legal conflict spilled over into the county’s beach activities ordinance, impacting how they were to respond to emergency situations, according to the Northwest Florida Daily News.
Previously, emergency responders had 15 feet of space reserved near beach dunes to respond to emergencies. But the county amended the rule to allow for 15 feet of space closer to the water line on private property where there’s an issue with public use amid the legal conflict.
County commissioners, however, were advised that having emergency vehicles drive closer to the water lines could be dangerous to swimmers.
At the time of the ordinance change, three of the four drownings on the county’s 26 miles of beaches were on private sections at least a half-mile from the closest public lifeguard tower. Those types of incidents necessitate vehicle access on private beaches.
DeFuniak Springs attorney Clay Adkinson, who was advising on the change, told first responders not to be concerned about where they are driving if they are responding to an emergency.
“I’m going to say right now: If it takes driving across somebody’s property to save somebody’s life, go do it. We’ll deal with it in court,” Adkinson said.
Following Monday’s ruling, the precaution of driving near the water line should no longer be necessary, regardless of private party consent.
After Monday’s ruling, attorney for the county David Theriaque applauded the ruling.
“This ruling is an important step in keeping the beaches of Walton County free and accessible to residents and guests,” Theriaque said.