NAVARRE BEACH — There are no “no trespassing” signs on Navarre Beach.
Neither are there security guards lurking on the dry white sands of Santa Rosa County to escort walkers to the water’s edge before they cross a particular parcel deemed private property.
All of the beaches in Santa Rosa County are open to the public, and most folks seem to like it that way.
“My thinking is you should be able to get on the beach and walk all the way to Fort Pickens if you want to,” County Commissioner Bob Cole said.
Here there’s no discussion of HB 631 or customary use. And, according to Santa Rosa County Administrator Dan Schebler, no issues in need of addressing as the tourist season approaches.
Unlike Walton County, where many jealously guarded beach lots run from the toe of the dune to the mean high water line, on Navarre Beach the vast majority of beach parcels, both residential and commercial, were platted and sold with the intention of leaving a large swath of coastline open to the public, according to Phil Babiak of Century 21 Island View Realty.
The few commercial entities that might have at one time claimed ownership to the mean high water line have been forced over the years to give up any such claim due to the fact that the 3.7 miles of sand that comprise Navarre Beach have had to be reconstructed.
South Santa Rosa County was hammered in 1995 by hurricanes Erin and Opal, and again by Hurricane Ivan in 2004, which was followed in quick succession by Tropical storms Arlene and Cindy and Hurricane Dennis in 2005.
“After Ivan the property lines for many people were somewhere in the vicinity of the area around their pool,” said Santa Rosa County engineer Roger Blalock.
Some steps had been taken in the late 1990s to protect beach homes and coastal infrastructure, but renourishing the beaches was still a source of contention in Santa Rosa County at the turn of the century, news reports from the time indicate.
After Ivan though, with water literally lapping at buildings and their supports, any talk of not doing something to rebuild Navarre Beach was abandoned.
“Our main concern was how to fund it,” said Cole.
In November of 2006, the last of 3.4 million cubic yards of sand was dropped on Navarre Beach. The new beach, built at a cost of $18.2 million, included a 14-foot berm meant to protect roads and buildings from storm surge.
As a condition of the state’s agreement to cover half of the cost of Santa Rosa County’s rebuilding its ravaged coastline, the beach was resurveyed and all property lines on Navarre Beach were adjusted to extend to the Erosion Control Line, which is approximately the northern toe of the dune, Blalock said. Everything below the ECL is now state property, managed by the county.
“All of the properties waterward are now public beach,” he said.
Beachfront property owners in both Okaloosa and Walton counties have resisted beach renourishment proposals because they don’t want the government taking ownership of the land behind their homes. Some, like residents of Walton County’s Vizcaya complex, have even paid to cover the cost of rebuilding the beaches behind their homes.
Navarre Beach has never drawn the number of visitors that places like Destin or South Walton have, but according to Santa Rosa County Administrator Dan Schebler, “the tourists haven’t stopped coming” since last season and bed tax revenues were up about 38 percent between 2017 and 2018.
Schebler said it is hard to determine whether the public friendly make-up of Navarre Beach is drawing people away from destinations like South Walton, where HB 631 has, since July of last year, pitted coastal property owners against beachgoers in a dispute over who can recreate where on the county’s beaches.
Babiak said the open beaches have created something of a competition between beach vendors over the placement of their company’s beach chairs and umbrellas.
“With no lease, there’s no jurisdiction, so it’s pretty much first-come first-serve, whoever gets there first,” he said.
But Navarre Beach is sandwiched between Eglin Air Force Base on the east and Gulf Islands National Seashore federal beach area to the west. There's plenty of beach and public beach accesses, with ample parking having been constructed every 1,000 feet, Babiak said.
"We are better positioned than most places to provide public access," he said.
Julie White, the executive director of the Navarre Beach Tourist Development Office, said she’s never used the county’s public beaches as a marketing tool and really hasn’t paid much attention to controversies playing out along the coast east of Santa Rosa County.
“We’ve never found it necessary to do that,” she said.