Some coastal property homeowners in the high-dollar neighborhood along South Walton’s Blue Mountain Road hold deeds stating their backyards extend nearly all the way to the Gulf of Mexico.
Others do not.
It doesn’t matter to the good folks at the Walton County Property Appraiser’s Office. To them, all of the lots carry the same hefty value of $1,815,000.
“That added depth, we haven’t noted it contributes any added value to the property. If it were the width at the front of the property, you’d see it, but the added depth below the coastal construction line, there’s very little utility there,” Property Appraiser Patrick Pilcher said.
Simply stated, no significant improvements can be made on the beach below the construction control line, so it holds no value to taxing authorities.
That means when former Arkansas governor and presidential candidate Gov. Mike Huckabee speaks of the exorbitant taxes he’s paying for the right to own Beach Mountain Road property all the way to the mean high water line, he neglects to mention those taxes are no higher than they would have been if he hadn’t paid $400 in 2012 for the quiet title that extended his backyard.
So if the beach is worth nothing, what’s to prevent Walton County from negotiating with selected property owners to obtain public beach through eminent domain? Employing that strategy, while an expensive one, might stave off what will no doubt be a protracted legal battle to claim all 26 miles of county coastline as public through a declaration of customary use.
Attorney Dana Matthews, who has been enlisted by several beachfront property owners to defend them against a customary use declaration, said he has suggested eminent domain to Walton County administrators, who thus far have not seriously entertained the idea.
“They could go declare eminent domain for about 30 feet past the wet sand and pay those people or give them a tax abatement or something,” Matthews said.
“Public use” is actually the exact language in the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution granting the government the power to exercise eminent domain, said Erin Ryan, a law professor at Florida State University who specializes in property and land use law, as well as water and natural resources law.
“The government can only exercise the power of eminent domain when it is for the purpose of public use," Ryan said. "Allowing the public to access the property would be the quintessential example of the kind of public use the Fifth Amendment allows takings for.”
For Walton County to attempt to take beach property through an eminent domain procedure, it must first show it needs to take the property in question for the "health, welfare or safety of the area,” Matthews said.
The process would begin with a formal letter notifying affected residents of the county’s intention to take a particular piece of property. Appraisals would be conducted, and in the end the county would present financial offers to the owners of the parcels in question.
“If you agree, they send you a check and it’s done. If you don’t like it, you can contest it,” Matthews said. “You can’t stop them from taking your property, but you can make them pay a value, and if you don’t like what they’re offering you can go to court and let a jury decide the value.”
Ryan and Matthews believe that while beach property may not hold any value for a property appraiser, it can certainly be argued that it is a valuable commodity.
Calculating the value of a beach for eminent domain purposes could prove problematic, Ryan said, but is probably doable.
“The beaches don’t have no value, but it’s very hard to calculate,” she said. “There aren’t comparable areas.”
The value of beaches, Matthews said, lies in the having. Stunning views of sea, sand and sunsets, or dolphins frolicking near shore, come at a high price.
That’s why the lots on Blue Mountain Drive are worth $1.8 million whether they extend to the mean high water line or not. It’s also why the owner of a 0.08-acre lot in tony Ayls Beach can market it today for $3.2 million.
The high cost of taking property through eminent domain would force the county to pick and choose what areas it seeks to take for public use, Matthews said. That would allow it to avoid picking a customary use fight with Developments of Regional Impact such as Sandestin, whose beaches have been considered private since they opened for business.
Bu Ryan said Walton County’s effort to have the county’s beach opened through a customary use declaration is probably a correct first step, and eminent domain might serve as a worthwhile secondary option.
“The first thing they want to do is see if they can prevail,” she said. “The Legislature has put the burden of proof on the county, and if the county’s now able to go back to the courts and show there is customary use it would be cheaper than using eminent domain.”