“We looked down and there was an older man in a wheelchair and his wife was struggling to push him out of the sand after a beach chair guy told him it was a private beach. I met him later and found out he was a World War II veteran. You’re telling me this guy can storm the beaches of Normandy, but he gets kicked off the beaches of Destin?”
DESTIN — Mike Oakley has been coming to Destin to vacation his entire life.
The 60-year-old Alabama resident said he’s frequented Destin since his college days, before its coastline was crowded with condos and beachside bars. He’s poured an untold amount of money into the local economy over the past several decades and has instilled the love of the Emerald Coast in his children.
But after coming here for vacation this past July with 34 family members, he said they’ll likely never come back.
“We love Destin,” he said. “But next year we will not come back if there’s a fight for the beach.”
Oakley said for three days of his family’s six-day vacation, he and other families were constantly harassed and bullied by beach chair vendors in Destin’s Crystal Beach neighborhood who disputed his lawful right to sit on public beach. For three days, Oakley had to call city code enforcement officials and even Okaloosa County sheriff’s deputies to mediate disputes between his family and the beach chair vendors. After the third day the vendors finally backed down.
“We were going down to the beach and there was a guy up top saying, ‘The public beach is that way about a quarter of a mile,’ ” Oakley said. “But we were at a beach access. It was public beach.”
As disputes over beaches in Northwest Florida continue to draw attention — particularly after House Bill 631 went into effect and sent Walton County beachgoers and homeowners into a contentious debate — public beaches in Destin are shrinking as private beach boundaries extend on all sides. What’s more, beach chair vendors are increasingly testing the limits of the beach-going public, in some cases violating city ordinances by putting their chairs too close to shore and restricting people from sitting in front of them.
A previous Daily News report found that even though the majority of Destin’s beaches are marked as “private beach,” roped off with no trespassing signs, many of those private beaches are being unlawfully kept from the public because they fall south of the Erosion Control Line and were restored using millions of dollars in taxpayer funds. That makes them public land.
In the second of a two-part Daily News series, we look at how, even on private beaches, a battle for the sand has reached an all-out boiling point.
Oakley said he and his family asserted their right to be on the beach 20 feet from the water’s edge and in front of the beach chair vendors’ setups — a lawful place for them to be, according to the Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office and Destin code enforcement — but still faced harassment from the vendors.
One scenario he saw play out particularly shocked him.
“We looked down and there was an older man in a wheelchair and his wife was struggling to push him out of the sand after a beach chair guy told him it was a private beach,” Oakley said. “I met him later and found out he was a World War II veteran. You’re telling me this guy can storm the beaches of Normandy, but he gets kicked off the beaches of Destin?”
Vendor violations abound
On any given day during the busy tourist season in Destin, you can see lines and lines of beach chairs set up on the water’s edge, many of them empty.
According to the Destin city code, beach chair vendors must set up their equipment no less than 20 feet from the water’s edge, they can only be on “private beach” and they’re not allowed to restrict the public’s access to the beach in front of their chairs.
“Beach vendors shall not block or impede in any manner the right of pedestrian access seaward of a line 20 feet above the mean high water line,” the ordinance states.
The Sheriff’s Office says it won’t arrest or trespass anyone within 20 feet of the water’s edge, even in front of beach chair vendor setups and past “no trespassing” and “private beach” signs.
“It’s a general order that we have. We’re not saying that the beach is public beach; we’re saying that we’re not going to enforce trespassing laws in that area because it’s just not clear whether or not it’s public beach,” Sheriff's Sgt. Jason Fulghum said. “There are people who say it’s public, there are people who say it’s private, and until there’s a definitive answer we’re not going to enforce trespassing.”
But vendors are increasingly setting up well within the 20-foot space, and people such as the Oakleys have recounted being kicked off the beach by vendors who said they couldn’t set up in front of their chairs.
Oakley said at one point, the beach vendors went as far as to put their chairs and umbrella underneath a tent he had already set up.
“We usually rent chairs and umbrellas, and we actually would have this year had they not been so crazy,” he said. “They were belligerent and determined to kick us off the beach until the ordinance guy for the city and the deputy came down and told them to back off.”
Some vendors also appear to be misleading the public about their rights on the beach.
One beach chair vendor told a Daily News reporter that people weren’t allowed to set up in front of their chairs because the 20-foot space is an “emergency responders” lane.
But Destin Beach Safety Chief Joe D’Agostino, whose lifeguards are the primary emergency responders on the beach, said he wasn’t aware of any such rule.
“If that’s true, I sure wish somebody would have told me about it,” D’Agostino said.
At the Crystal Shores public beach access, another beach chair company has a sign telling people not to set up their things in front of the beach vendors’ chairs, an obvious violation of city code.
And even though vendors aren’t allowed to be set up on public beach, many appear to be set up south of the Erosion Control Line, a line determined by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection before two beach renourishment projects that used taxpayer funds to rebuild many of Destin’s beaches.
Who enforces the city’s code?
Destin code enforcement officers are in charge of enforcing the city ordinances regarding beach chair vendors, and in 2018 they’re operating with a budget of $386,673 in taxpayer dollars. But city officials declined to answer questions from the Daily News regarding how often and how strictly they enforce their own code.
Destin added two code enforcement positions in its 2018 budget, bringing the code enforcement staff from four to six people. One of the positions was a “beach and harbor parks code enforcement officer.”
Interim City Manager Lance Johnson said the new position, which is being funded through the Tourist Development Department beach services budget, is more of a “park ranger” position that “combines park maintenance, public education and the ability to enforce park rules when needed.”
But it’s still unclear how the city enforces its own codes regarding beach chair vendors.
Greg Kisela, a former Destin city manager and current Okaloosa County deputy county administrator, said code enforcement officers used to drive up and down the beaches during the “100 days of summer” to make sure vendors were in compliance.
But when asked how code enforcement officers operate today — including whether or not anyone patrols or monitors the beach for violations, what happens when a vendor is found to be in violation of code and what officers do about “private beach” signs on property that shouldn’t be private — city officials declined to answer any questions.
“Because of current beach-related issues affecting the entire state, the city will defer comments to a later date,” the city said in an official statement provided to the Daily News.
Officials did not specify how issues concerning other parts of the state had anything to do with how Destin enforces its own city code.
City records show code enforcement officers responded to just four beach vendor-related complaints since Memorial Day weekend.
Shrinking beaches’ impact on tourism
With the city’s public beach accesses only a few dozen feet wide at best, and with beach chair vendors bullying members of the public off the beaches they likely have a legal right to be on, elected officials fear they are facing a crisis as the battle over the beach becomes more and more personal.
Parker Destin is a city councilman and sixth-generation Floridian whose great- great- great-grandfather, Leonard Destin, was the town’s original settler. The same beaches that dazzled Leonard and other early settlers in the 1800s are now a fiercely contested battleground.
“My observation has been one of deep concern,” Parker said. “Over the last four to five years working in the restaurant business, I’ve detected that we have a very high turnover of people coming to Destin that have never been here before. They come here with stars in their eyes and they spend good money to stay in some of the amenities north of the beach roads, and come to find out after paying their deposit, they walk down with their inflatable pool toys and find out they don’t have a beach to meaningfully access, or they get hassled.”
Parker said the lack of public beach access poses an “existential threat” — if city leaders do nothing, more and more visitors will continue to feel unwelcome on Destin’s beaches and never come back. That would threaten the city’s tourism, unarguably the backbone of the local economy.
“How many years can we really hassle people? How many times do we have to run World War II veterans off the beach in their wheelchairs?” he said. “This could be disastrous. It really, really could.”
Two weeks ago the City Council, led by Parker Destin, officially directed Mayor Gary Jarvis to explore ways the city could purchase more beachfront land. Jarvis will meet with landowners and doing some “preliminary fact-finding” to determine whether any landowners would be willing to sell their property to the city, “especially given the tax benefits of selling property to a government entity,” Parker said.
Jarvis said he sees the need for more public beach access as a “big issue,” and said funding could be considered through “a combination of grand money, BP Triumph funding, federal funding, maybe Florida land grants.”
“I don’t think it’s going to be relatively difficult, but I definitely know it won’t be easy. It’ll be in-between, like any type of land transaction. You’ve got to find a willful seller and a willful buyer, so there will be a negotiation that takes place, no doubt,” Jarvis said. “But I think the need for public beach access is undeniable, especially with what’s taking place in Walton County and the rest of the state.”
Chatham Morgan, another Destin city councilman and lifelong city resident, said the existing beach accesses are “completely inadequate for demand.”
Morgan said the city has three options: First, explore customary use laws similar to Walton County’s, which admittedly would be difficult, considering customary use has essentially been broken over the past 20 years.
Second, the city could work to secure more public beach accesses.
“The third option is really to do nothing and watch our tourism suffer,” he said. “Which isn’t really an option in my book.”