SANTA ROSA BEACH — What was originally planned to be a public hearing on customary use Saturday morning turned into a time solely for public comment after Walton County commissioners were told that some beachfront property owners were not properly notified of the meeting.
"We do fully understand that this is a pretentious and emotional issue," Commission Chairman Bill Chapman said before the start of the meeting. "No matter what side you may be on, we ask that everybody use proper decorum and respect our opposing views. No hacking or catcalls from the audience; this is not the Senate."
Hundreds of people formed a line out the door of South Walton High School where the meeting was held. At 9 a.m., about 200 people still hadn't made it through security checkpoints and into the auditorium that holds 750 people.
The board unanimously voted to postpone the start of the hearing 30 minutes to allow more people to arrive, despite some opposition from the crowd. About 800 people were on hand when the session started.
A public hearing is the first step of the process put forth by House Bill 631 for the county to show customary use of the beaches and have a judge decide where they should be open to everyone. The law requires that all beachfront property owners be notified of the hearing by certified mail.
Officials discovered Friday that 13 out of about 1,000 affected property owners were not properly notified of the hearing. County Attorney Sidney Noyes recommended that commissioners listen to public comments but reschedule the actual hearing — with attorney statements, evidence and a vote to accept the ordinance — until Nov. 3.
"We thought that we had a mechanism to capture everyone, but unfortunately, 13 slipped through," Noyes said. "This is a fraction of 1 percent."
Although Commissioners Melanie Nipper and Tony Anderson were against postponing the meeting at first, all members eventually agreed that it was best.
The original hearing agenda included presentations by the County Attorney, the Special Land Use Attorney and James Miller — a registered professional archaeologist who has been researching beaches in Florida for 50 years with his focus on the Gulf Coast. It also included time for public comments, comments from attorneys representing clients, and the possible vote by the commission on the formal notice of intent.
However, more than a dozen people — some of whom traveled from other states — formed lines to address the board on both sides of the issue. Ann Tucker, chairwoman of the Muscogee Nation of Florida was one of them.
"I represent the tribal government and Indian people," she said. "We have passed a resolution ... that results that the tribal council believes in full beach access for all residents and all visitors of this area."
Most of the more than 50 speakers favored allowing customary use of the county's beaches, including Catherine Prorencher who said she "feels bad" for private property owners that "have a disease in their heart" and "think they own every grain of sand."
People clapped and cheered at Prorencher's comments, to which Chapman asked them not to clap because it disrupted the flow of the meeting. Prorencher then told Chapman he was interrupting the three minutes she was granted to speak, which was followed by more clapping and cheering.
Chapman banged the gavel, called for a recess and quickly walked off stage. The comments resumed after about five minutes.
Lee Shook, a Walton County native and resident of County Road 30A, said homeowners cannot use their beaches because other people take over.
"People come down at 6 a.m. ... set up and take over," Shook said. "Why in the world do we need this (customary use) if we have all of these beautiful state parks and county parks? That's what they're there for.
"I can't come to your house and set up chairs and umbrellas in your front yard. ... We have people going to the bathroom in the dunes, loud music, drinking, throwing trash everywhere."
Tom Ballantine, a condo owner in Seagrove Beach, said he firmly supports customary use and has never had problems with people on his beach.
"God made the beaches and it's for all God's people," he said.
Bill Hackmeyer, a homeowner in the Vizcaya development in Dune Allen Beach and one of the most vocal opponents of customary use, told commissioners they should use the money they are spending on attorney's fees to buy private land and convert it for public use.
"They're not bad people, they just resent people telling them what to do on their land," he said of beachfront property owners.
Phil Ehr, who lost out in the Democratic primary for Florida's first congressional district last month, said winner Jennifer Zimmerman will be a good ally for customary use if elected to Congress. Chapman told Ehr that the meeting is not a political event and asked him to get to his point.
Ehr said he was also representing state Senate candidate Gigi Gibson, who could not attend the meeting. Ehr said Gibson also supports customary use, to which Chapman said, "That's all we needed to know."
After a five-minute break, only about 80 people remained to continue the public comments. The meeting adjourned after a little less than three hours.
Walton County has received more than 7,000 notarized affidavits from people who say they use the county's beaches recreationally. The deadline for affidavits will be extended.
The next public hearing will be scheduled for 9 a.m. Nov. 3 at South Walton High School. The county again will notify all beachfront property owners of the hearing.