In ruling, the judge signaled that a lawsuit filed on behalf of the same 15 owners, seeking to accomplish the same thing by overturning a newly amended county ordinance, could also be in jeopardy.
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PENSACOLA — District Court Judge Roger Vinson declined an emergency motion Monday that would have removed several Walton County property owners from the constraints of an order closing the county’s beaches.
In ruling, the judge signaled that a lawsuit filed on behalf of the same 15 owners, seeking to accomplish the same thing by overturning a new county ordinance, could also be in jeopardy.
“As it stands I don’t believe it can succeed,” Vinson said.
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The original suit was filed April 6, four days after the Walton County Commission voted in emergency session to amend a standing ordinance and close privately owned as well as public beaches to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
An emergency motion for an injunction that would allow the beach owners access to their property while the lawsuit worked its way through the court system was filed in conjunction with the lawsuit. It was that motion that was heard, and denied, Monday.
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Attorneys for the beach owners, which include former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, argued that the county used its amended ordinance to seize private property.
Lead counsel Kent Safriet said owners had been “kicked off and threatened with arrest for being on their own beach.”
Safriet argued that by preventing beach owners from accessing their property, which in many cases in Walton County is claimed to the mean high water line, the county has actually put them in greater jeopardy to catch COVID-19.
He said his clients not being able to fish, swim or recreate in their beachfront yard raises the risk that they’ll acquire the coronavirus by biking on a public path or shopping at local stores.
Attorneys for the county and Walton County Sheriff’s Office argued that the emergency ordinance had been passed to keep people off all of the county’s beaches and thus save people from exposure to COVID-19.
Bill Warner, representing Walton County, argued that the county’s closing of its beaches did not constitute a seizure, or taking, was temporary in nature, limited the beach owners from only a portion of their properties and had been done for the good of all.
Vinson agreed in his ruling that, in the short term, the need to keep Walton County’s beaches clear superseded the desires of the homeowners to freely access their property.
“The primary public interest here is you don’t put people in an area where they can be exposed to COVID-19,” he said.
During the hearing Vinson delved, at times, into the overriding issues that Walton County has faced for years now with its beaches and ongoing battles over what white sand coastline can be construed as public or private property.
“This case boils down to the definition of what is the beach,” he said, asking an attorney for the Sheriff’s Office if, under the existing ordinance, sanctions could be levied for someone sitting in a chair in the sand outside their back door.
“You can’t have the sheriff saying you can’t go out into your back door, five or 10 feet from your back door,” Vinson said. “To anyone looking at the beach, sometimes you can’t tell where the beach really ends. Where does the beach end? That is the gray area I think we are really concerned with.”
In order to have won the emergency injunction, Safriet’s team was required to convince Judge Vinson that the property owners would have been likely to win at trial. He ruled Monday he did not believe that to be the case.
He also debunked the property owners’ argument that they would suffer irreparable harm if the injunction were not granted and that granting it serves the public good.
Vinson also expressed concern with the way the county’s amended ordinance is “construed and applied.”
He postulated an arbitrary distance of 10 yards from a permanent structure should be considered a safe space on a beach property from which the county emergency ordinance could not be applied.
“Public beach on the Gulf of Mexico is not defined by legal ownership, but by what is the beach,” Vinson said.
Monday’s hearing was originally slated to be held with just the judge, court personnel and the attorneys of record in the case in attendance. Vinson decided over the weekend to open the hearing to other interested parties.