Lines in the sand
A look at the gradual privatization of Destin's world-class beaches
DESTIN — Yao Lo, a tourist from Atlanta, walked out to the Shirah Street public beach access at 6 a.m. one recent morning to stake out a spot for his 15 family members.
Lo said he was paying $6,000 to rent a house for the week just one block from the beach, but was dismayed to learn on his first day of vacation that there was little to no beach for his family to enjoy. Ropes on either side of the Shirah beach access near his house designated nearly all the beach behind the ropes as “private.” Between the ropes, the access was only about 60 feet wide.
He said he was forced to come to the small sliver of beach access before sunrise every morning to reserve a spot for his family before people were “packed like sardines” in the one small section of public beach.
“You’re down here for the summer paying six grand a week and you learn there’s no space for you to bring your kids to the beach?” he asked as he screwed an umbrella into the sand. “I think we’re going to choose another place to vacation next year.”
Lo’s dilemma is one of many faced by tourists who visited Destin this summer only to learn that the vast majority of the city’s six miles of beach are private, marked off with ropes and no trespassing signs, and guarded closely by territorial beach chair vendors.
What’s more, large swaths of Destin’s beaches that should be open to the public due to past restoration projects funded by county and state money, have been unlawfully marked as “private beach” for years — and confusion on the part of city and Okaloosa County officials, as well as law enforcement, has created a culture of apathy that has further muddled the issue.
In a two-part Daily News series, running in the Aug. 5 and Aug. 12 Sunday editions, we look at how Destin’s beaches have come into increasingly high demand over the past two decades, how and why the public's access to the beach has increasingly dwindled, and what — if anything — can be done to restore the public’s right to access the beaches.
Shrinking public beach accesses
Okaloosa County’s beaches are heavily marketed by the Tourism Development Department as sand that’s “shockingly fine” and “so clean that it squeaks underfoot.” The water, the TDD’s website says, are a “brilliant emerald-green” color that “provides such a contrast with the blue sky and the white sand below.”
What’s more, the TDD’s website says, is that “the most amazing thing about our beaches is that the very best belong to you, the beach-loving public.”
But more and more tourists who visit the Emerald Coast, especially Destin, are learning that’s not entirely true.
Almost all of Destin’s six miles of beach are “private” — marked as belonging to the private homeowners and towering condo associations that line the beachfront roads on either side of Henderson Beach State Park. Ropes and “no trespassing signs” begin on either side of the city’s 13 public beach accesses, limiting the spaces accessible to only a few dozen feet at best.
According to Daily News measurements, taken both with measuring tape at the public beach accesses and by analyzing property appraiser records, only about 1.4 miles of Destin’s beach is open to the public. That includes Henderson Beach State Park, which divides Destin down the middle and has a little over 4,700 feet of public beach. The park charges beachgoers $6 per car to visit.
Nine of the city’s public beach accesses, dispersed throughout the Crystal Beach and Scenic Highway 98 areas, have a combined total of less than a half mile of public beach. Some of the smallest beach accesses in the city are Tarpon Street, the Shores at Crystal Beach and Pompano Street, which have roughly 11.5, 40 and 50 feet of public sand, respectively.
On the west side of Henderson Beach State Park, there are only two public beach accesses (not including the Norriego Point and Holiday Isle accesses). The Calhoun and Silver Shells/June White Decker accesses, near the Back Porch restaurant, have a combined 138 feet of public beach.
Visitors who don't stay in a Gulf-front condo or neighborhood that has a roped-off private beach are directed to any one of the city’s public beach accesses. That sounds like a simple solution in theory, but in practice it means that many of the millions of visitors who come to Destin and don't stay in beachfront property have almost no access to the beach.
And those visiting the Crystal Beach accesses must contend with extremely limited parking — most of the accesses only have seven to 12 spaces. Some have no parking at all.
Beach restoration projects
But are the so-called “private” beaches actually, legally, private?
During two major beach restoration projects in Destin in the past 20 years, officials determined an Erosion Control Line that runs along the portions of the beach that were restored and maintained using taxpayer money.
The ECL line is, essentially, where the Mean High Water Line was located before the beach was restored. In some places, like on Holiday Isle and in Crystal Beach, the water was lapping up at property owners’ front doors. The taxpayer-funded restoration projects moved the Mean High Water Line back several feet in some areas, creating wide swaths of beach in front of the properties.
Those large swaths—those south of the ECL line—are, by law, public beach, according to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.
“Where beaches have an established ECL, everything seaward of that line is property of the state, or sovereign land,” Dee Ann Miller, a spokeswoman for the DEP, said in an email to the Daily News. “Where there is not an ECL, the MHWL is the boundary, unless the upland property owner’s deed states otherwise. Each upland property owner deed can potentially vary on where it states they own down to the MHWL or some other property line location.”
Miller also said that before all beach erosion control projects, an ECL “must be established along the shoreline to define the property boundary between sovereign submerged land and upland ownership.”
Public money, private beaches?
Two major beach restoration projects that took place in Destin in 2006-2007 and 2012-2013 altered the landscape of many of the city’s beaches and provided much-needed expansions to sand that had been critically eroded during the 2004 and 2005 hurricane seasons.
The first beach renourishment project was a joint venture with Walton County that restored about seven miles of beach, including two miles of beach in Destin from Henderson Beach State Park to the Walton County line and the remaining five miles of beach in Walton County from the county line to Topsail Hill State Park.
The project cost a total of more than $27 million, with Destin’s share clocking in at $9.8 million. The cost was split between the state of Florida and the then-Tourist Development Council (now the Tourist Development Department), both of which kicked in $4.9 million.
The second renourishment project took place on Destin’s Holiday Isle in January and February 2013. About 1.7 miles of beach was restored, with a 2,600-foot gap in between due to legal challenges by beachfront property owners of single-family homes and condominiums.
The Holiday Isle project cost almost $8 million, with the TDC contributing about $6.7 million. The remaining money was raised through the county’s Municipal Services Benefit Unit, which was created in 2009 to cover the cost of beach restoration. Beachfront property owners bore the greatest burden of the MSBU fees, paying $150 to $200 annually, while inland property owners paid about $55 a year.
Since 2000, the city of Destin has kicked in about $450,000 in taxpayer money on various beach restoration projects, including things like cost-sharing and post-project monitoring, according to Doug Rainer, the city’s public information manager.
During both projects in 2007 and 2013, engineers used surveying to establish an Erosion Control Line. The ECL runs essentially unobstructed from the East Pass to the Walton County line, with the 2,600-foot gap on Holiday Isle and a 4,700-foot gap at Henderson Beach State Park.
The Okaloosa County TDD has records that dictate where the ECL line is located, thus making it clear where the public beach begins and the private beach ends. But TDD officials claim that the line would be impossible to determine without a new official survey.
“The Erosion Control Line (ECL) is based on an elevation, not a fixed line in the sand,” the TDD said in an email to the Daily News. “As a result, the location of the ECL may seem to ‘move’ as the beach erodes or accretes, but it does not. It is important to note that you can’t just walk out on the beach and locate the ECL unless you survey for that elevation.”
But the DEP says the ECL is clearly a “fixed boundary.”
“As private property owners, coastal property owners are afforded some rights as all other owners are; however, they cannot impede public access to sovereign lands or established public access routes,” Miller, the DEP spokeswoman, said in her email to the Daily News. “All of the operative ECL lines are recorded in the local County Clerk of Circuit Court, and DEP has electronic copies of those files in our OCULUS system.”
She added that the DEP “does not get involved with land rights disputes or physically marking private property lines” but they “do work with private surveyors on projects such as those marking private lands near an ECL or MHWL to correctly identify property lines.”
Greg Kisela, who was Destin’s city manager during the 2007 project and currently is the deputy county administrator for Okaloosa County, said the ECL line is a clear, fixed line, although it’s difficult to determine without a survey.
“Some of that land south of the ECL is under water now, and some of it is still dry sand,” he said.
Kisela said nobody marked the ECL line with stakes, signage or other markings when it was first established in 2007, which would have made property lines explicitly clear. But city and county officials do have devices they can take to the beach to determine where the ECL is within about one foot.
About two years ago, he said, “using basically a GPS device, we were able to determine around 30 to 40 percent of the ECL beach was still dry,” he said.
But Taylor Engineering, the firm that the county contracted to execute both the 2007 and 2013 restoration projects, said in 2015 that the Holiday Isle project contained about 80 percent of its initial sand volume, and the Crystal Beach project contained between 94 to 99 percent of its original volume.
'We won't make them move'
Since the ECL line was never clearly physically marked, the Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office uses a “20-foot rule” when enforcing trespassing on Destin beaches.
Sgt. Jason Fulghum said deputies will not trespass anybody who puts their things within 20 feet of the water’s edge, even if it’s behind “no trespassing” signs and ropes or in front of beach chair vendors.
“It’s a general order that we have. We’re not saying that the beach is public beach, we’re saying that we’re not going to enforce trespassing laws in that area because it’s just not clear whether or not it’s public beach,” Fulghum said. “There are people who say it’s public, there are people who say it’s private, and until there’s a definitive answer we’re not going to enforce trespassing.”
Fulghum said he had a large volume of trespassing calls “several years ago” but since then it has died down. He’s seen an uptick in calls since the Walton County customary use kerfuffle. House Bill 631 took effect July 1 and sent Okaloosa's neighboring county into turmoil.
“If someone is set up anywhere on the beach in Destin and they’re within 20 feet of the water’s edge, we will not arrest them for trespassing and we won’t make them move,” Fulghum said.
Inside | A6
A look at the history of customary use —or lack thereof — in Destin.
We look at how the problems on Destin's private beaches are playing out in real time, and what some city officials propose to do about the problem.