The Walton County Commission is prepared to embark upon a long and probably expensive mission to return large swaths of coastline to the public by proving that people have been enjoying the beaches of South Walton for a very long time.
Commissioners have established Saturday, Sept. 8 as the day they will hold a public hearing at which they are scheduled to give notice of their intent “to affirm the existence of recreational customary uses on beachfront property in Walton County, Florida.”
The 9 a.m. meeting will be held at South Walton High School on Greenway Trail in Santa Rosa Beach.
Commissioners voted at their last regular meeting to change the day and location of the meeting in order to accommodate what they anticipate will be a very large crowd.
“It could certainly be in the hundreds,” county spokesman Louis Svehla said.
In 2016, Walton County voted to create a Customary Use Ordinance that gave the public access to areas many coastal private property owners claimed to be their own, and held deeds to that bolstered their arguments.
This year HB 631 effectively restored the private property rights of the owners and voided Walton County’s ordinance. Since the bill went into effect July 1, some owners have posted no trespassing signs and called upon the county to end its practice of using vehicles to perform tasks like garbage collection on the beach.
Deputies have been called upon to mediate frequent disputes between property owners and beachgoers, many of whom claim customary use as their right.
HB 631 provides a mechanism for Walton County, and other Florida counties, to prove customary use legally and have a judge rule that beaches should be open to everyone. The first step in the process is the public hearing that will be held Saturday.
At the meeting, the bill says, the governing board must:
Adopt a formal notice of intent to affirm the existence of a recreational customary use on private property. Specifically identify the specific parcels of property, or the specific portions thereof, upon which a customary use affirmation is sought. Provide the detailed, specific, and individual use or uses of the parcels of property to which a customary use affirmation is sought. Produce each source of evidence that the governmental entity would rely upon to prove a recreational customary use has been ancient, reasonable, without interruption, and free from dispute. Walton County attorney Sidney Noyes will be leading the meeting, Svehla said.
The public hearing must be held before the county can take its argument for recreational customary use before a judge. The judge is under no obligation to rule on behalf of the county.
The majority of Walton County Commissioners have declared their intent to fight for the customary use rights of their constituents.
“I have enjoyed our beaches since moving here in 1967. I have watched many families including my own grow up on these beaches. It is horrendous to think that outside forces as well as some locals are trying to make a systematic change to our quality of life by working to restrict the public's access to what truly are the world's most beautiful beaches,” Commissioner Sara Comander said in a recently published statement.
“We need to act quickly and to act now before a significant negative economic impact is felt taking away our quality of life and the jobs and future of our children,” Comander, who is leaving office this year, said.
Commissioner Melanie Nipper has thus far been alone on the five-member board in saying she’d like to search for terms of compromise between beach goers and the coastal property owners before the county takes action that will surely result in expensive litigation.
“Both sides of this ‘battle’ are at a very critical and (soon to be) expensive point and we may be in the middle, having to pay and pay dearly, to defend a decision that will ultimately be decided in a higher court system,” Nipper told Noyes and County Administrator Larry Jones in a recent email.
Nipper suggested the county take the advice of Bill Fletcher, a resident currently running to fill Comander’s seat.
Fletcher had requested commissioners “consider getting both sides of this issue to place litigation on hold for six months while we try to reach an acceptable agreement” to problems exacerbated by passage of HB 631.
“I have to believe rational people can sit down and reach an agreement, if each side is willing to reasonable compromise,” Fletcher said. “We are looking at years and millions of dollars being spent and I suggest we give it one more shot at avoiding litigation and turmoil.”