Walton County attorney Daniel Uhlfelder traveled quite a ways from his WaterColor home this weekend to wiggle his toes in the dry sand beach behind the Vizcaya residential community.

Armed with an umbrella, a chair and a copy of a recent Rick Scott executive order, Uhlfelder spent Saturday and Sunday on the beach, upsetting representatives of the Vizcaya homeowners association with his presence on a stretch of sand they claim as their own.

“I sat where I was comfortable. I sat where I’m used to sitting when I go to the beach,” Uhlfelder said.

Accompanied Sunday by local artist Justin Gaffrey, Uhlfelder also tested the resolve of Walton County deputies charged with mediating a growing number of disputes between coastal private property owners and beachgoers who claim the sand belongs to everyone.

Uhlfelder and Gaffrey nearly managed to get themselves hauled off to jail for criminal trespass. It would have been the first such arrest since HB 631 became law July 1 and turned the beaches of South Walton into a battleground.

On numerous occasions over the two days of encounters with Mr. Ulfhelder, Adkinson said, deputies explained how the situation could be mediated and handled without any issue or without a warrant being filed. The sheriff said deputies explained they were not going to physically arrest him and take him off the beach. 

Video by the Walton County Sheriff's Office.

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At the end of the day Uhlfelder and Gaffrey said they were told warrants would be obtained and they could be taken into custody in about a week. Each man said a deputy had taken down driver’s license information.

Sheriff Michael Adkinson said Monday his agency was not interested in filing charges and making a “test case” arrest some would see as a political statement.

He said it would be up to Vizcaya to obtain any criminal warrants against Uhlfelder and Gaffrey.

“I understand what Mr. Uhlfelder is trying to accomplish … it’s pretty obvious they want a resolution, an outcome,” Adkinson said. “I think there is a better means to get that result.”

Adkinson said it would be up to a judge to sign an arrest warrant, and the question of whether the judge would be willing to do so could establish another precedent in an ever-evolving customary use controversy.

Bill Hackmeyer, the president of the Vizcaya Owners Association, said he had not discussed taking out an arrest warrant with his board of directors.

Uhlfelder and Gaffrey said they were operating under the impression that an executive order issued last week by Gov. Rick Scott re-opened the dry sand areas of Walton County beaches to the general public, making them available as they had been prior to July 1.

“I was abiding by my rights based on what I thought the executive order stated, which was that the beaches are open,” said Gaffrey, a Blue Mountain Beach resident.

Scott has declined to clarify whether his executive order, which states “Florida beaches belong to all of us” extends the “public access” he promises onto private property, as it would under the doctrine of customary use.

State Attorney Bill Eddins said he interprets the executive order as declaring public access only to public areas.

The spot where Uhlfelder and Gaffrey chose to test the executive order has been a focal point of discussion since a Walton County customary use ordinance was voided by HB 631 becoming law July 1. The new law empowered beachfront private property owners to post no trespassing signs, and many in Walton County have.

Vizcaya residents have posted several signs, and took the extra step of hiring a security guard to patrol the sand behind their community. The guard’s job is to notify those who wander above the wet sand areas near the water that they are trespassing.

Hackmeyer has engaged several people, who he refers to as “interlopers,” in heated discussion over private property rights. He spoke to “community organizer” Uhlfelder Saturday, he said, but stayed away from the beach Sunday at the specific request of the sheriff.

Uhlfelder said he was well aware of the potential for controversy at Vizcaya when he chose the spot to plant his umbrella over the weekend. He said as a 45-year Florida resident, the beach is in his blood, and he believes he’s entitled to plant his chair wherever he chooses.

“We’re at the vortex of a huge problem. Are we going to have public beaches or not?” he said. “Where I was sitting Saturday and Sunday was ground zero.”

Gaffrey said confrontation with private property owners is a way that Walton County citizens not wealthy enough to afford lobbyists and attorneys and change laws can make a difference.

“I don’t want to be arrested. I want our rights to use our beaches that we have always had,” he said. “I do have sympathy for the deputies and the last thing I want to do is provoke them, but as a citizen I don’t have lobbyists and attorneys. I don’t have that kind of money and power.”