SANTA ROSA BEACH — Walton County coastal property owners and at least one county commissioner are questioning the legitimacy of Saturday's scheduled public hearing on customary use of the beach.
Concerns arose when it was learned that a number of people were not properly notified about the meeting, which remains scheduled for 9 a.m. at South Walton High School.
Edgewater Condominium President Suzanne Harris, a vocal critic of county government, said she was among those who did not receive notification, and learned over the Labor Day weekend that several other owners in her complex did not, either.
"The owners were reading all this stuff in the paper and online about customary use and asking me, 'What is all this?' " Harris said. "They said they never got the registered letter they were supposed to get.
"I knew they screwed up. They didn't send me one," Harris added.
Under the law that came out of House Bill 631, which undid Walton County's customary use ordinance, a county can seek "to affirm the existence of a recreational customary use on private property" only by following certain procedures.
Step one is to conduct a public hearing.
"The governmental entity must provide notice of the public hearing to the owner of each parcel of property subject to the notice of intent," the law states. "Such notice must be provided by certified mail with return receipt requested."
Harris alerted County Attorney Sidney Noyes about the unreceived letters, and Noyes confirmed Friday that some beachfront owners had not been properly notified of the meeting.
"These owners represent less than half of 1 percent of the total number of beachfront property owners," Noyes responded when asked about the discrepancies.
In an abundance of caution, Noyes, said, county commissioners will address the notification issue at the beginning of Saturday's meeting "and decide how best to proceed."
Walton County Commissioner Melanie Nipper said she has been hearing between 30 and 40 homeowners may not have received meeting notices, but she's suspicious of that number.
"I have a feeling the county is trying to downplay how many people didn't get noticed," she said.
Noyes said 4,198 total letters were sent out. It was not disclosed how many property owners were not reached.
However, however, it wasn't just residents of Edgewater Condiminiums who missed out on the mailings.
The exclusive Shipwatch community has 29 homes, 10 of which open onto the beach. All 29 owners hold "undivided interest" in a private beach area, according to Shipwatch Homeowner's Association President John Carlin, but only the 10 beach homes received meeting notices.
"Excluding 19 owners, that's a pretty considerable error," Carlin said.
In the Gulf Pines community, 128 homeowners hold equal ownership of about 100 feet of beach "right in the middle of the subdivision," according to longtime resident Bobby Bowick.
Bowick said he's spoken to 10 people who have said they didnot receive meeting notices, and he's under the impression there are a lot more Gulf Pines residents who did not, either.
"I know of no one in Gulf Pines who received one," he said. "I haven't found anybody who's gotten one."
Nipper said she's been told to plan to attend Saturday's meeting and she is under the impression the board could be given two options for how to proceed in lieu of the missed notifications.
One would be to postpone the meeting and start over. The second to have a second meeting for those not properly notified of the first, she said.
"This public hearing is supposed to be for everyone affected. Why would you have a public hearing for some and not for all?" she asked. "The intent is to get everyone together and know how we're going to move forward. This is heartbreaking. I really feel it's time to move forward, and our county is being held hostage by customary use."
Walton County Commission Chairman Bill Chapman did not respond to phone or email messages.