Gov. Rick Scott’s executive order urging Florida counties to protect public beach access had “some vagueness in it,” according to Walton County Attorney Sidney Noyes, but State Attorney Bill Eddins said he thinks the order could prove useful.
“I believe the governor’s executive order was helpful in that it makes it clear that the general public still has access to the beach,” Eddins said. “The law doesn’t eliminate access to the beach, just restricts it in some cases to the mean high water mark.”
Scott issued an order Thursday urging Florida counties to protect beach access and directing the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to assist. In a news release announcing the issuance of the order, the governor noted that HB 631, which became law July 1, had “created considerable confusion” about the public’s right to beach access.
All of the confusion that has thus far taken place has been in Walton County, the sole Florida county that was immediately impacted by the passage of HB 631. The new law wiped out the county’s customary use ordinance, which granted public access to all beach areas, and allowed private property owners to mark their coastal holdings and take action to prevent trespassing.
Eddins said law enforcement officials have been seeing some misunderstanding of HB 631 since it became law.
While under the new law, the public is denied access to dry sand beach areas rightfully claimed by private beachfront owners and beachgoers are entitled to traverse those private properties on the wet sand portion of the beach, Eddins said.
The executive order “helps the land owner understand the public still has access to the beach,” Eddins said.
Scott’s order does a couple of other things that Eddins found to be positive. It requires the Department of Environmental Protection to “serve as an advocate for the public’s right to public beach access.”
Part of DEP’s advocacy role is establishing an online reporting tool to give state residents “with concerns about beach access” the ability to provide input to be reported to the governor and Florida Legislature.
“It puts in place a procedure for the general public to provide input to the Florida Legislature that legislators will be able to consider when deciding whether they will repeal or amend that new law,” Eddins said.
Lastly, Eddins said, by virtue of his signing the executive order, “it’s clear the governor wants local authorities to work together with the general public and not tie up the legal system with questions about where exactly on the beach someone can stand.”
Scott’s order “urges State Attorneys in Florida to protect Floridians' constitutional right to access to the beach.”
“I know law enforcement is going to avoid making an arrest unless it’s clear the intent is to trespass or commit a crime,” Eddins said.
Walton County officials have been caught up in the middle of the mess created by the passage of HB 631, but, according to County Administrator Larry Jones, Scott’s executive order did not have a direct immediate bearing on local governance.
“The executive order provides specific direction for certain departments and staff within the state government,” Jones said. “We’re in a holding pattern now to see how they respond. In the meantime we will continue to move forward.”
DEP did not respond to a request for comment.
For now, Jones said, Walton County’s beaches are open for business.
There’s not likely to be any immediate cessation, though, to whatever hostilities presently exist between beach goers and private property owners, though Jones said he was confident the Walton County Sheriff’s Office could mediate whatever issues might arise.
“Individuals may interpret the order in a way that favors their position, whatever that position may be,” Jones said. “The county will continue to press forward with the process laid out in HB 631 until such time that there is clear direction otherwise.”
Under HB 631, Noyes explained, the county must hold a public hearing at which its leaders will declare their intention to put together a new customary use ordinance. That public hearing is presently scheduled for Sept. 6.
Following the declaration and passage of a designated period of time, the county can request that a court order by declaratory judgment that customary use, a premise that beaches are open to the public by virtue of their always having been so, exists in Walton County.