DeFUNIAK SPRINGS — The Walton County Commission is standing up to the latest local resident mounting a legal challenge to its efforts to establish customary use as the law of its coast.
In a news release issued Tuesday afternoon, the county asserted a federal lawsuit filed on behalf of Walter E. Blessey Jr. "has national implications" and "could deny the public's traditional right to use recreational sites throughout the United States."
Locally, the battle will be for “the public’s right to recreational use of beaches,” the release said.
“Walton County government officials are vowing to fight the efforts to deprive the public of their long-held rights to the sandy portions of the beach,” the release added.
“This is about doing the right thing,” the release quoted County Commissioner Tony Anderson as saying. “It’s time we stood up and took back our beaches.”
Blessey’s lawsuit, filed last week in U.S. District Court by the Tallahassee law firm of Hopping Green and Sams, is unlike others filed thus far. It argues that customary use doctrine is a product of Old English Common Law and therefore not applicable in the United States.
“The common law Doctrine of Customary Use, while valid under England’s common law, is repugnant to the U.S. Constitution and cannot be the law of Florida,” the lawsuit states.
Walton County approved an ordinance in 2016 based on the customary use concept that beach areas have been publicly accessed for as long as humanity has been around, and should therefore remain open to visitors without interference.
The ordinance allowed the public access to certain dry sand portions of the county’s beaches and prohibited signs and fences asserting private property rights.
Many coastal property owners have objected to the ordinance, claiming commissioners are allowing people to trespass on land that they legally purchased.
A law passed by the Florida Legislature this year will void Walton County’s customary use ordinance as of July 1 — a point noted in Blessey's lawsuit.
H.B. 631, which affects only Walton County, does give the county a legal means to re-establish an ordinance similar to the one passed in 2016, and officials are adamant about doing so.
Commissioners announced in Tuesday's release their intention to schedule a date at their June 25 meeting for a public hearing “as the first step toward again implementing a customary use ordinance.”
The legal complaint states that efforts by the county to pursue a new customary use ordinance have harmed their client.
The county’s “consistent assertion” that customary use trumps the private property rights of citizens like Blessey “instill in the public and tourists a false and illegal basis by which they believe they can freely utilize private property.”
Such an assertion “creates a cloud” over private property owners’ title and has caused great uncertainty regarding the enforcement of trespass laws, the lawsuit states.
The complaint claims the nation’s Founding Fathers largely rejected Old English Common Law and created their own set of governing principles by adopting the U.S. Constitution.
It states the county, by relying on the common law interpretation of customary use, violates Blessey’s Fifth Amendment rights under the Constitution by taking private property without just compensation and his Fifth and 14th Amendment rights by depriving him of property without due process of law.