SANTA ROSA BEACH — Fighting to make all beaches public again is a group hoping to recruit more help.
Florida Beaches For All, a organization focused on re-establishing customary use, hosted a seminar — titled "Battle of the Beaches" — Tuesday night to educate citizens on its cause and hear their input.
Chairwoman Tonia Shatzel, a local veterinarian, and board member Dave Rauschkolb, owner of Bud and Alley's Waterfront Restaurant and Rooftop Bar, spoke to the audience of around 50 people.
"There's a lot of folks who are unhappy with us because we've educated the public on what's happening," Rauschkolb said. "Some folks might not have been happy that tourists might find out that they're going to run into private beach signs on the beaches, but you know, if it takes one, two, three or four years, people are going to find out.
"We felt really, really strongly that people need to know."
As a longtime Seaside business owner, Rauschkolb, said his passion for the cause stemmed from a hope his two daughters would able to enjoy the same freedoms on the beach as he did before House Bill 631, which went into effect July of last year and banned public access to beaches that belonged to homeowners with private deeds.
With Walton being a tourist destination, he feared restricting beach access would hinder the local economy.
"We're up against a very highly funded group of folks, and a very determined group of folks," Rauschkolb said. "They believe in private property, and they've framed it in this way, and they have a lot of money."
During the presentation, Shatzel highlighted that tourists brought around $4.4 billion into Walton in 2017, which represented 65 percent of the county's tax base.
Shatzel added that the group, which formed last year after HB 631, needed additional support and volunteers for the long fight ahead.
After the presentation, the group opened the floor for questions and comments. Most who spoke were either longtime locals, real estate agents or multiple homeowners — but nearly all expressed their dislike for HB 631 and its negative impact on Walton's future economy.
Florida Beaches For All representatives at the meeting said they plan to continue spreading their mission across the county and state. The group also hired Santa Rosa Beach attorney Daniel Uhlfelder to help them schedule a court hearing to move forward in the legal process of making Florida beaches a public domain.
"We're in a court battle," Shatzel said. "We didn't ask for this battle, but it happened legislatively with HB 631. This is the only real option that we believe we have, and this is the option we decided to take."
For more information, visit the group's website at floridabeachesforall.org or Facebook page.