How do other beaches compare to Destin’s?

In a two-part Daily News series, we’ve explored the ways in which Destin’s beaches have become increasingly private over the years as property owners have more stringently enforced what they believe are their rights to the beach.

But how do Northwest Florida’s other beaches compare in terms of the public’s access?

Walton County

South Walton’s beaches have made headlines for years — not for their crystal white sand and emerald green water, but for a number of state, federal and civil lawsuits filed to litigate the sand and determine who has a right to use the beaches.

Walton County commissioners passed 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 objected, claiming commissioners were allowing people to trespass on land that they legally purchased.

But House Bill 631, passed by the Florida Legislature this year, voided Walton County’s customary use ordinance as of July 1.

Since then, tensions have reached a boiling point, mostly along Scenic Highway 30A, as beachfront property owners assert their rights to the sand in front of their homes and visitors attempt to go to the beach without being hassled, trespassed or arrested.

Walton County sheriff’s deputies have been called to the beach to mediate disputes between property owners and beachgoers. Commissioners have vowed to continue fighting for the public’s right to the beach.

There appears to be no end in sight to settle the public/private beach debate once and for all, as several cases continue to make their way through the court systems.

Okaloosa Island

Although in the same county as Destin, Okaloosa Island’s beaches are much more friendly to members of the public than Destin’s beaches.

Almost all of the Island’s beaches are public except six parcels: the former Ramada Plaza Beach Resort, now rebranded as the Island; the 4 Points Sheraton Hotel; the Holiday Inn Resort/Hilton Garden Inn; Destin West Beach and Bay Resort; the Gulfarium Marine Adventure Park; and Seaspray Condominiums. Each of those properties is deeded to the Mean High Water Line and has the legal right to enforce “private beach” rules.

There has never been a beach restoration project on Okaloosa Island beaches, although the county’s Tourist Development Department does pay around $300,000 per year to clean both Destin and Okaloosa Island beaches. The cleaners don’t discriminate between “public” and “private” beaches.

All of the property east of Beasely Park and west of El Matador Condominiums belongs to Eglin Air Force Base, according to Deputy County Administrator Greg Kisela. The remaining land is public beach.

Okaloosa Island has six public beach access ways, and the county is expanding three of them, according to Okaloosa County Commissioner Carolyn Ketchel, whose district includes the island.

Beach vendors on the Island are required to be no less than 25 feet from the water’s edge, according to county ordinance. Members of the public can and do put their chairs in front of the vendors’.

Mike Mitchell, a former county commissioner and Okaloosa Island resident since the 1970s, said the Okaloosa Island Authority was formed in the 1950s to guide development of what was then only a sand bar. The Island Authority and other county leaders had the foresight to ensure that the majority of the island’s beaches would be open to the public.

“This will always, always be a public beach,” Mitchell said.

Navarre Beach

Navarre Beach is the friendliest in terms of public beach access.

Santa Rosa County’s white sand beaches and clear green water are identical to Destin’s and South Walton’s, but without any of the ropes, no trespassing signs or private beach banners.

County Attorney Roy Andrews said Navarre’s beaches have been renourished twice in the recent past, and the Erosion Control Line is very clearly at or near the dunes, making all of Navarre’s beaches public.

“It’s all public beach,” Andrews said. “The beach has been renourished and is considered an engineered beach, and part of that process is that an Erosion Control Line is established and the property seaward of the ECL is open to the public.”

What’s more, none of Navarre Beach’s homes is deeded to the Mean High Water Line. The beach is perpetually leased, not purchased, so nobody “owns” the beach.

There’s no ordinance regarding beach chair vendors other than that the vendors must be off the beach from sundown to sunrise to protect nesting sea turtles. But strict ordinances aren’t really needed on Navarre Beach because it’s entirely open to the public.