A walk along the beach is the quintessential Florida experience. Unfortunately, that refreshing shoreline stroll is now the subject of political games in the Florida Legislature, and citizens need to pay close attention before it is too late.
A small section of an otherwise innocuous bill (SB 804/HB 631) would prohibit any local government from adopting ordinances designed to protect the historic “customary use” of our beaches. This debate began when Walton County enacted a local ordinance that protects the rights of beach-goers to use the shoreline for recreation. Some property owners filed a lawsuit over the ordinance, but the county passed one legal challenge and prevailed in keeping the beachfront open to the public. The case is on appeal.
Now, a small group of landowners, unhappy with a pro-beach access county commission and the opinion of the U.S. District Court, have decided to press their case in the Florida Legislature. The bill would preempt local control and require that the courts establish where the boundaries for public access to beaches occur on a property-by-property basis. This could negatively impact tourism and our economy. A patchwork of property-by-property decisions will only lead to more conflicts between beach goers and property owners. Imagine the blight if property owners resorted to fencing and “No Trespass” signage on the beach? This is exactly what was occurring in Walton County and why the Board of County Commissioners felt compelled to establish an ordinance protecting beach access and prohibiting the use of barricades.
The term “customary use” describes a pattern of public access to the waterfront based on ancient, peaceful, and reasonable use of the beach by the public. A hodge-podge of surveys to establish meets and bounds has caused conflict between property owners and the public who rightly assume the beach is open to to all. The Florida Wildlife Federation supports private property rights, however, we see our coastal waterfront as a unique interface between property owners and the public. Tides, storms and shifting sand can radically alter the landscape overnight. Public access, even if it requires travel across private property, must remain unfettered. Too many of Florida’s beaches have become inaccessible due to beach clubs and gated communities that make access impractical if not impossible. We will continue to fight for expansive opportunities for public use of the beachfront.
It’s time to tell our representatives in the Florida Legislature to vote “no” on SB 804/HB 631. Let them know that beach access is too important to us and to our tourism economy to allow a piecemeal approach and a court-ordered system of use. Local government is in the best position to establish the public’s right to use the beaches.
Jay Liles is the policy consultant for the Florida Wildlife Federation. Liles can be reached by firstname.lastname@example.org.