SANTA ROSA BEACH — Another skirmish in a widening battle between Walton County beachfront property owners and the county’s governing board surfaced Tuesday when a request from several owners to discontinue trash collection on their land came up for discussion.
Seventeen private property owners, some of them condominium boards or homeowners associations, represented by four law firms, have sent letters to county officials over the course of the past few months. Each letter demands that the county stop allowing its vehicles to access dry sand areas which, since July 1, have been considered private property and off limits to those deemed trespassers.
The property owners ask that county trash receptacles on their land be removed and say they will take over garbage collection.
“On behalf of these landowners,” a letter from attorney D. Kent Safriet states below a list of several addresses, “we hereby request that all county employees, (specifically the TDC and its personnel) hereby cease and desist from trespassing on these landowners property.”
The request did not go over well with county commissioners or Brian Kellenberger, the Walton Tourist Development Council's director of beach operations. Kellenberger pointed out that 30 percent of all garbage collected on Walton County beaches last year came from receptacles on private property, and TDC vehicles often need to traverse one property to get to another.
If the property owners who thus far have demanded county vehicles no longer cross their land get their way, Kellenberger said, “48 percent of the county’s garbage collection stations will be compromised.”
The three commissioners who attended Tuesday’s meeting — Cecilia Jones and Melanie Nipper were absent — were none too happy with the demands, and neither was the vast majority of residents who showed up to speak.
“This trash pileup is already a problem for many volunteers who cannot leave the wet sand to pick it up,” Laurie Reichenbach said. “Our county is at war and this is a terrible situation.”
Commissioner Sara Comander suggested the county simply suspend collecting garbage at the locations requesting it.
“I say let them pick up their own garbage,” she said.
As a compromise, though, it was decided to provide a 30-day window, during which County Attorney Sidney Noyes would speak to the attorneys representing the property owners in hopes some sort of compromise can be reached.
“If we just stop collecting garbage out there it’s going to be a nightmare,” Commissioner Tony Anderson said.
If some sort of agreement is not reached in 30 days, however, the commissioners said they will consider suspending garbage pickup on some areas of the beach.
Comander urged residents opposed to the garbage collection suspension to make their voices heard to those calling for the trespassing rules to be enforced.
The private property owners appeared in their letters to take greatest issue with the TDC’s use of beach vehicles to collect trash from receptacles located on private property or cut across the dry sand of those private properties to collect garbage from receptacles to the east or west.
But code enforcement officers and even emergency personnel not rushing to a call were also requested to drive only in wet sand areas.
Safriet’s letter even suggested the Walton County Sheriff’s Office enforce trespass laws against any county personnel traversing the landowners’ property in dry sand areas.
Bob Brooke, the single person to speak Tuesday in support of the private property owners stance, told commissioners the potential garbage crisis constitutes “a perfect example of the Pandora’s Box you opened with customary use.”
The county passed a customary use ordinance two years ago that opened many dry sand areas to the public and ordered the removal of signs or fences private property owners were using at the time to warn against trespassing.
This year the Legislature passed a law that targets at this juncture only Walton County. It lays out a difficult legal path the county must follow to re-establish customary use on its 26 miles of beach.
One of the letters written on behalf of the homeowners spells out a possible legal strategy hidden within the request to remove county vehicles from the private properties.
“It is evident that the county is going to seek to establish customary use ... on some or all of the beaches in the county,” a letter from attorney David Smolker said. “Our clients understand that the county is going to cite its beach trash collection and pick-up and Beach Code enforcement vehicle traffic as support for its claim of customary use on the dry sandy beaches.”
At the meeting Noyes addressed that specific concern, saying the county's legal team had no intention of using its beach garbage collection or code enforcement as leverage in court in a customary use argument.