Walton County backs away from tough language on beach vending permits

Jim Thompson
Northwest Florida Daily News

SANTA ROSA BEACH — For the moment at least, Walton County commissioners have backed away from the strong language that most of them had wanted to include on permits for the rental of chairs, umbrellas and other beach amenities.

The language which commissioners and the county had settled after last year's annual review of the county's beach activities ordinance — during which considerable public comment was concentrated on vendor-related incursion into residential areas — noted that such vending is not allowed on residential property, and that doing so "may subject the property owner to code compliance action."

But commissioners decided last week that they would instead limit the number of "sets" —  two beach chairs and an umbrella — that could be placed on the private beach at the location from which the sets were rented. Under that arrangement, an area of 10 feet by 10 feet — with additional room for an adjacent 6-foot clear passage between sets to accommodate other beachgoers — will be required for each set.

More:Walton commission: Beach vendors on residential property are not authorized

Part of the rationale for that move, commissioners and others said at the meeting where amendments to the county's beach activities ordinance and related issues were considered, is to lessen the crowding in some areas where beach sets are rented.

Commissioners backed away from the plan to have the warning of possible legal action included on vending permits after it was noted that beach vending is specifically excluded from the definition of "business" in the county's land development code.

Walton County Attorney Sidney Noyes noted that more definitively addressing beach vending in residential areas might require changes to the land development code.

It's not clear exactly how many residential areas have been hosting beach vending services, but one particular instance at 210 Winston Lane at Inlet Beach where beach vendor Rent Gear Here has been operating has galvanized opposition.

Umbrella and beach chair sets crowd the shoreline at Inlet Beach in Walton County. Walton County commissioners have backed off from an initial proposal to prohibit renting beach gear on private property.

And for Commissioner Danny Glidewell and some residents who spoke out against beach vending from residential areas, the issue is less a matter of business regulation than a matter of zoning.

Glidewell repeatedly said that businesses can't operate in residential areas, and there should be no exceptions for beach vending. Otherwise, Glidewell argued, the county is sanctioning improper activities.

"The fact that we’ve done it all these years doesn’t excuse the fact that we can’t do it anymore,” Glidewell told one vendor at the meeting.

“We don’t have the authority to have people breaking the law," Glidewell added.

More:Walton County to seek proposals for tourist-related app for beach chair requests, weather

The other side of the argument was advanced by Commissioner Tony Anderson. While commissioners serve the county at large, they must live in the district from which they are elected, and Anderson's district includes most of the 26 miles of public and private beach in South Walton.

Anderson argued that eliminating vending from residential areas on and near the beach would, in effect, limit access to the beach, and in turn create problems for the tourism industry, the county's economic driving force.

Anderson argued that taking too heavy a hand against residential vending would push people to the county's already crowded public beach accesses, which also would increase traffic on roads, both of which would make the county less attractive to tourists.

“It scares me to death what this could cause down the road," Anderson said, contending that even a 10% drop in tourism revenue and the tax dollars it brings in could be a real problem for both businesses and the county government.

As commissioners chewed through the issue, it was beach service owner Robert Miralles, a frequent presence at commission meetings where beach vending is discussed, who suggested removing the proposed language from beach vending permits, citing the land development code's exclusion of beach vending as a business.

But Glidewell continued to insist that residential property was an improper venue for that business.

"Y'all are set up to make money, and because this is residential property you don't have the right to do that," he said.

“We have the right to regulate that business,” Glidewell continued, adding that Miralles didn't "have the right to stand there and say we can’t enforce the law.”

Beach umbrellas and people line the beach front near the Whale's Tail Beach Bar in Grill in south Walton County.

Ultimately, Commissioner Mike Barker suggested limiting the number of sets allowed on private property as a means to get some immediate control over residence-based beach vending. Barker argued in part that the move would at least limit the traffic and crowds that such vending has brought to beach-front neighborhoods.

"It would limit the overcrowding that we had last year," he said.

The limits on beach sets will be enforced by the county's code compliance department, whose personnel can go onto private beaches if they observe a violation from public property. 

Commissioners approved Barker's proposal with a 4-1 vote, with Anderson dissenting.

But it also was clear that at least some commissioners aren't finished with the issue.

“It appears at this time, under the (land development code), that vending is not a business," Commissioner William "Boots" McCormick said. "I don’t agree with that, and I will tell you up front, to the vendors, that I will do what I can to change that.”