DESTIN — The private vs. public beach battle in Destin is nothing new, although it certainly is drawing more attention this year thanks to the customary use battle raging in neighboring Walton County.

There, a 2016 ordinance establishing customary use on South Walton beaches — reinforcing the idea that beaches have been used by the public throughout recorded history and should continue to be open to the public — was overturned this year thanks to a bill signed by outgoing Gov. Rick Scott, which enforced the rights of some beachfront property owners to trespass people from the beach in front of their homes.

Following public outrage, Scott issued an executive order repeating people's right to access Florida's public beaches. But by that point, Walton County’s beaches had already become a battleground.


In Destin, a similar scenario played out almost two decades ago, but with a much different outcome.

In the spring and summer of 2000, a customary use battle was under way between beachfront property owners and others after the City Council took steps to establish customary use on its beaches. The council had directed its land use attorney at the time, David Theriaque, to draft a customary use ordinance that would have created a 25-foot "buffer zone" in front of the most seaward structure on a piece of property.

Beyond the 25-foot buffer zone, the property would have been open to the public.

But beachfront property owners banded together, retained a high-profile lawyer and vehemently opposed the proposed ordinance. It ultimately died at a City Council meeting in June 2000.

“For some reason, the city backed down from it and did not vote on the ordinance,” said Chatham Morgan, a Destin restaurateur and current city councilman whose father, Charles Morgan, was on the City Council in 2000. “It would have established customary use, but they didn’t vote on it because they were afraid of lawsuits.”

Morgan said his father, who still lives in Destin, supported public beach access and even went as far as commissioning a plane to fly a banner down the beach saying, “The beaches are for the people.” But city leaders who supported the public’s right to use the beaches were called “communists,” and public opinion swayed toward the rights of beachfront owners, so any proposal to establish customary use received little to no public or political support.

So without a customary use ordinance, beachfront property owners have enjoyed the right to enforce trespassing on the beaches in front of their homes and condos for the past 18 years. Beachfront land continued to be sold and deeded to the Mean High Water Line, a 19-year average of where the high tide line meets the sand (and a line that's changed drastically over the years in some parts of the beach).

Over time, as Destin exploded in popularity as a tourist destination and more and more coastal property was developed, Destin's public beaches dwindled in size as private property grew.

Now, city leaders say they’re faced with a “crisis,” and establishing any kind of customary use ordinance in the future is out of the question.

City Councilman Parker Destin said he has "deep concern," and went as far as requesting the council at a meeting last week to direct Mayor Gary Jarvis to look into purchasing beachfront property for public use.

"We need to start acquiring public beach," Destin said. "The folks who think they own all the beach are thrilled to have a place to send the general public, and the general public says we need a place to go for ourselves, and with the infrastructure we currently have, we are woefully inadequate."

In next Sunday's edition, read more about what Parker Destin, Chatham Morgan and other city officials have to say about the "existential threat" and how it could potentially spell disaster for Destin's tourism.