DESTIN — Residents of Holiday Isle don’t expressly forbid tourists and visitors from crossing the public beaches behind their homes or condominiums, but they don’t make it easy to get to them, either.

They're not alone among inhabitants of the World’s Luckiest Fishing Village when it comes to trying to prevent the outside world from encroaching upon the crystal white sand and blue-green Gulf water that make the Emerald Coast unique.

In central Destin, some private beach owners have gone to great lengths to keep interlopers off of their property, and in doing so have chopped public beaches into squared-off islands of sand surrounded by rope fences. And in east Destin what beach there is is made difficult to get to by a lack of parking.

Holiday Isle

Although there are dozens of access ways to the beach areas on the peninsula created by Destin Harbor and the Gulf of Mexico, nearly all belong to residents or condominium complexes. There are just two public beach accesses on Holiday Isle.

One works to funnel visitors onto Norriego Point, away from Holiday Isle's homes and condominiums. The other drops would-be beachgoers off at East Pass, leaving them a half-mile walk to the Gulf.

Norriego Point, a thin strip of sand that separates the state’s busiest charter fishing harbor from the pass, has been reborn in the past couple years with an infusion of BP oil spill settlement money.

Enough sand has been placed on the once severely eroded point to create 11 more acres of beach, according to Patrick Russell, the community association manager for the Holiday Isle Improvement Association, the self-proclaimed “master association for properties located on Holiday Isle.”

Public bathrooms and other amenities are planned to enhance the visitor experience, Russell said.

The Norriego Point Public Beach Access is about midway down the point, and provides access strictly to East Pass and Destin Harbor. There’s no convenient route to the Gulf.

A trek to the water along the O’Steen Public Beach Access, the westernmost of Holiday Isle’s two public paths, ends on state-owned white sand stretching to a jetty-sheltered cove within the East Pass.

Vendors working for Legendary Marine have staked off a good chunk of the dry sand portion of this small beach just off the beach access. The land there is claimed by developer Peter Bos, who paid $4.2 million in 2012 for 11.2 acres that he says extends all the way to the water of the pass.

Bos' employees have placed signs to create a landing zone for a water ferry that runs with some regularity to drop off and pick up guests at the Emerald Grande who choose to visit the beach.

Although controversy was created in 2015 when Legendary put up private property signs on the beach next to the O’Steen beach access, there is no longer any evident enforcement of those claims other than the chairs staked out for Bos’ guests.

Some beachgoers report that Legendary Marine employees have steered them away from the sand in front of the chairs set up for Emerald Grande's guests, which would appear to be a violation of the spirit of the 20-foot rule established by the Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office and the city of Destin.

The Sheriff’s Office's Destin Beach Trespass Directive defines the county’s customary use area as “the area of the beach beginning at the water’s edge and spanning 20 feet northward; otherwise known as the wet sand area.”

The directive goes on to say “deputies should not enforce trespass laws anywhere in the CUA.”

Even if a visitor finds a safe place to stand when he or she hits the beach at Norriego Point, a 12½-minute walk awaits to get past the Bos property to the Gulf. That walk was made without coolers, chairs or other accoutrements in tow.

Marcie Bell, a resident of Gulf Breeze Court and a Holiday Isle Improvement Association member, said she doesn’t see the location of the O’Steen access as an inconvenience to the public.

“Going out there, with the exception of where Peter Bos has his umbrellas, I can walk as far as I want or stay as close as I want” to the access, she said. “If you go to the O’Steen access, you can go right there to the water or you can go a little way further to the end of the jetty and the Gulf.”

But Bell’s status as one of the 1,903 members of the HIIA, as the umbrella association is known, also enables her to walk directly to the Gulf by using either the Norriego Road Beach Access or the Moreno Point Road Beach access.

Only homeowner association members are can use those two accesses, and any consideration of either of the two HIIA accesses ever being opened to the public is expressly forbidden by the association's covenants.

The covenants state “No lot, parcel or any portion of real property subject to these covenants shall be dedicated, sold, conveyed, transferred, leased or used as a public beach access or in any way other than as designated on the Holiday Isle plat.”

Section 4.16 of the covenant goes so far as to specify that “a public beach access includes any access that is not for the exclusive use of Holiday Isle property owners or their guests.”

Although the public may struggle to get to the Gulf on Holiday Isle, anyone who manages to do so has a wide open area to recreate. A 2013 beach restoration effort created 1.7 miles of state-owned beach and opened the coastline up to anyone who wishes to cross it.

About a half-mile of Holiday Isle beach remains private. A group of property owners banded together to battle the renourishment efforts, and successfully protected their beaches for themselves.

About two-thirds of Holiday Isle's private beach is sandwiched between the two HIIA-only accesses. The other third is directly east of the Moreno Point Road Beach Access.

The coastline on the Gulf side of Holiday Isle is considered critically eroded, and plans called for the public beaches there to be renourished when a dredging project planned for this year got under way. The project was postponed, however, when the dredge to be used was called away on an emergency assignment.

Central Destin

In central Destin, condominium owners have extended rope fencing from the tops of their dunes to the mean high water line that block the public from walking on the dry sand behind their buildings.

That creates a bizarre dynamic near 1900 98, Signature Beach and Silver Shells condominiums, where the Calhoun Public Beach Access, June White Decker Park Public Beach Access and Silver Shells Public Beach Access are all located.

On March 12, a weekday still early in the spring break season, the roped off public area behind the June White Decker access was packed with people who set up where they could in a box of sand some 50 yards wide and 75 yards long.

Meanwhile, on either side of the public beach, a handful of people lounged in chairs bearing the condo logos of 1900 98 or Signature Beach. Three people occupied the entire stretch of beach behind Signature Beach, and perhaps seven could be seen on the beach behind 1900 98.

Another big crowd of beachgoers was hanging out at the Calhoun Beach Access to the immediate west of the Signature Beach Condominium.

The fence at Signature Beach, which is a rope hanging between posts, extended to within about 6 feet of the Gulf. A sign posted at the end of the fence warned beachgoers not to occupy the area between there and the water in case an emergency vehicle had to get by.

Deputy County Administrator Greg Kisela said the Signature Beach Homeowners Association, in particular, has a reputation for aggressively defending its beaches.

“They’ve routinely confronted tourists and visitors and beachgoers,” said Kisela, who served as Destin's city manager from 2003-11 and from 2014-16.  “My understanding is the Sheriff’s Office is called out there a lot, especially in the Signature Beach area. That homeowners association is pretty aggressive about people setting up and sitting on what they believed was their beach.”

A police presence was clearly evident when a team from the Northwest Florida Daily News visited the central Destin beach accesses March 12. Four Okaloosa County sheriff's deputies were stationed on the road in front of the June White Decker and Calhoun accesses, seemingly keeping a keen eye on the public beach properties.

Efforts to contact Signature Beach Homeowner Association President Jim DeVos were unsuccessful.

Property appraiser maps show that the owners of Signature Beach, 1900 98 and Silver Shells hold title to the land behind their condominiums all the way to the Gulf.

But Destin officials steadfastly refused to comment on whether the homeowners associations are legally entitled to extend fences that far down the beach or order the public off the first 20 feet of beach.

There is wording in the city code that states vendors who do not work for "rem uneration or contribution" (which is pay) are not bound by rules stating the public must be allowed access to beach areas within 20 feet of the surf, but Destin officials also declined to say whether Signature Beach, 1900 98 or Silver Shells use that clause to prevent the public from accessing the beach behind their buildings.

In response to questions, Destin spokesman Webb Warren quoted the city code regarding vendors, not private property owners.

Vendors “shall not block or impede in any manner the right of pedestrian access seaward of a line 20 feet above the mean high water line,” Warren said in an email.

Ken Wampler, the president of Newman-Dailey Resort Properties, confirmed that the condominiums that have deployed rope fencing close to the water line are bound by the same 20 foot easement rules as other property owners in Destin and Okaloosa County.

He said if someone were to come onto 1900 98 property and sit within 20 feet of the water they would not be bothered, because by law they are allowed to be there.

“If you go down there and watch on a busy day, you’ll see they’re not chasing people away,” Wampler said. “If you and your wife want to come sit there we’d have no problem with that. We want to be good neighbors and good stewards.”

He said the rope fences, approved by the state, allow the condominium homeowners’ association to prevent people from “squatting” in a zone provided to allow emergency vehicles to pass. The distance from the end of the fence line to the water varies with the tides, he said.

In another email, Warren cited code language stating “it shall be unlawful for any person to block emergency and/or public safety vehicles access across the beach.”

In response to a public records request, Warren acknowledged that no citations had been issued by the city to Signature Beach, 1900 98 or Silver Shells between March 1, 2017, and March 22 of this year.

Kisela said Destin had employed former Niceville Police Officer Joey Forgione as its code compliance officer and that Forgione had made smoothing relationships between beachgoers and condo owners a priority.

However, the city would not make Forgione available to the newspaper for comment.

A part-time officer will begin patrolling Destin beaches in May, Warren said, to address code compliance issues.

East Destin

Seven of Destin’s 13 public beach accesses are located east of the Henderson Beach State Park, where nearly a mile of coastline is available for anyone willing to pay $6 to visit the park.

Most of the public accesses on the east side of the city open, like those in central Destin, onto minuscule beaches. The Tarpon Street access has just over 11 feet of public beach while those at Shores of Crystal Beach and Pompano Street offer just 40 and 50 feet of beach, respectively, according to Daily News records.

Parking challenges also hinder visitors to the east Destin beaches. Some of the public beach accesses offer fewer than five spaces.

Much of the beach that is being claimed as private in east Destin isn’t, apparently, private. Beach restoration efforts undertaken in 2006-07 and later in 2012-13 would have opened the coastline to the public.

The first project cost more the $27 million, and the city of Destin and Okaloosa County's Tourist Development Council shared nearly $10 million of the cost with Walton County. The Okaloosa beaches that were renourished included all those east of Henderson Beach State Park to the Walton County line.

What has really changed about Destin is not the Gulf-front ownership, according to Kisela, but rampant development in areas north of the Gulf.

"We've added a whole bunch of people," he said. "The driving force creating the pressure on the beaches has been so much growth."

Kisela recalled talking to the owner of a Gulf-front restaurant who had at one time attempted to accommodate beach goers, only to see her good intentions taken advantage of.

"She told me, 'We started off wanting to be good neighbors and ended up having too many neighbors,' " Kisela said.

About 10 years ago there was "dirt parking" close enough to east Destin's public accesses to give people a way to get to the beach, said Steve Stepenson, a longtime manager at the Crab Trap restaurant on Scenic Highway 98.

But the roads have since been resurfaced, and the parking has disappeared, Stephenson said.

"The only large parking area in east Destin is us," he said. "James Lee Park here at the Crab Trap is the only only large public parking space and beach access."

Stephenson said he hears often from locals who are unhappy about the limits being placed on available parking and public beach access.

"They say things like they feel they're being told 'Here's a beach access, but we're not going to give you any place to park to take advantage of it,' " he said.