Beach property rights heats up commission meeting

DEBORAH WHEELER 267-4555 | @WaltonSunDeb dwheeler@waltonsun.com

Beach-front property-owner rights and the public's ability to easily access the beach was a hot topic at Tuesday's meeting of the Board of County Commissioners in DeFuniak Springs.

This debate is not new, but it was thrust into the spotlight again recently as news surfaced of some beach-front homeowners in the Beach Highlands subdivision gaining deed to two beach walkovers.

County Manager Larry Jones told The Sun that evidently the two walkovers in Beach Highlands were still recognized as alleys on county plats and in November, the nearby property owners, all located in Block F and owning property that stated their property went to the toe of the dune, petitioned First Judicial Circuit Court Judge David Green to give them a quiet title to the walkovers. Green granted the quiet titles on Nov. 17, 2015.

The homeowners' deeds were platted and recorded in 1960.

The Beach Highlands homeowners association was dissolved in 1967.

Of the two walkovers that had been used by the public, only one had been improved by the county, said Jones.

Judge Green was not immediately available for comment.

In light of a resurgence of public interest in the topic of public beach access, District 1 Commissioner Bill Chapman placed the subject of "beach issues" on the agenda for Tuesday's meeting.

Chapman said after becoming aware of what had transpired at Beach Highlands he became concerned that it could encourage others to do the same and might eventually cutoff access for the public to the beach.

"I felt it was important to get it before the board," Chapman told The Sun. "If we don't do something now, our future generations may not have access to the beach. I am checking now to see what we as a county commission can do to ensure we have continued access to the beach."

Several citizens spoke of their concerns to the commissioners.

Long-time resident Dave Rauschkolb talked about the need for continued customary use and access privileges of South Walton beaches.

"I have been accessing and surfing these beaches for 40 years," he said. "I think it's important to protect our beach accesses in perpetuity for our children."

Rauschkolb told The Sun that prior to recent legal maneuvering that has transpired to privatize accesses, beach access and use was never in question.

"A handful of homeowners who have purchased should not be allowed to privatize. Customary use has been in place for decades. Generations have used those accesses. If you build next to cows, you need to get used to cows," he said.

However, beach-front property owner David Harper disagrees.

Harper told the commissioners, "You do represent all property owners and some have had unencumbered title to their property for decades. It's not fair. How many of these people would like to open up their back yards for people to use? Our clear title to mean high-water line is what we paid for and pay taxes on."

Harper then asked District 5 Commissioner Cindy Meadows, "You live on lake-front property, don't you?"

Meadows told him no, that she could not afford it, that her home is on a 40x100 lot with no water view.

Harper told her to keep saving and maybe she would get there, which drew gasps across the room.

"I'm not independently wealthy," said Harper, "I worked my whole life to get this. You do represent all the people."

Point Washington resident Frank Day followed, reminding commissioners and Harper that Harper bought his property knowing that customary use of the beach in front of his house has gone on for decades, and even centuries before he purchased.

"Customary use was established by the Supreme Court 25 years ago," said Day. "Beachfront property owners bought knowing this. Our beaches are not there just as a cash cow but they also represent the boundaries of the United States and our sovereign existence that represents all of us."

Harper told The Sun that he has been a property owner at Stallworth Preserve since 1997 and he owns two properties there now -- his beach-front home and a vacant lot on Stallworth Lake.

Harper said his deed states that his property goes to the mean high-water line and Sheriff's deputies have been supportive of his property rights.

There is a neighborhood beach access at Stallworth preserve, but Harper said he is not concerned with it being used or the public walking through at the water's edge, he just doesn't want the public on his property or setting up in front of his house.

"I just want the commissioners to represent the beach-front property owners," said Harper. "I never heard one comment in favor of our rights. It's sad the county commissioners take no interest in our rights. There are a lot of places I have been going for 40 years but I don't claim to own them. I want my rights protected."

Commission Chair Sara Comander said commissioners will have a workshop on the hot topic on March 16 at Emerald Coast Middle School, assuming the facility is available, from 5-8 p.m. to discuss the subject further and hear from everyone who wants to speak on the topic.

Chapman said he is bringing in an expert who will brief commissioners and speak to the public on the topic at the March workshop.

Chapman told The Sun that whatever ruling commissioners end up making, he expects that lawsuits could be filed and it could go all the way to the Supreme Court, which might be best, he said.

Rauschkolb said he is very pleased that the county commission took the lead to formulate a plan to address beach access and use of our beaches.

In another issue that could affect property rights, Larry Jones said he met with officials from Florida Fish and Wildlife on Monday who are concerned about the endangered Choctawhatchee Beach Mouse and its habitat.

 Jones said the beach mice nest in the Bay's sands and as an endangered species, FFW must protect its habitat.

 "This could also impact Bay properties," said Jones. "They have taken a position that is within their authority, that they have to approve any building that could impact the beach mouse."