It is telling that the two sides in Walton County’s bitter battle over its beaches don’t even agree about what it was last year that blew apart decades of harmonious relations along one of Florida’s most beautiful coastlines.

The dispute has evolved to the point in which it now pits the Walton County Commission against more than 600 beach property owners in an all-or-nothing legal fight that will decide whether or not 26 miles of county beach are considered open and accessible to the public.

“There’s going to be a profound winner and a profound loser,” said attorney David Pleat, who represents some 60 property owners.

 

Caught in the middle and certain to be affected, as they were last year when House Bill 631 took effect and no trespassing signs began to appear on Walton County beaches, are the 4 million visitors the county expects to host this tourist season.

The Walton County Commission favors opening the county’s beaches to public access. Commissioners blame the situation they now finds themselves in on last year’s passage of HB 631, a law that wiped out a local customary use ordinance adopted in 2017.

The new law took effect July 1 of last year, and some property owners drew literal lines in the sand to keep people off beaches they claimed as their own. Beachgoers, both residents and visitors, took offense, and sheriff's deputies spent the summer mediating trespass disputes.

On the other side of the issue, the property owners blame the local ordinance struck down by HB 631, the county’s attempt to legalize customary use — the theory that beaches should be open to everyone because mankind has walked them since time immemorial.

Private property rights are sacred, the homeowners argue, and the ordinance sought to take their land without even offering recompense.

“No other county has ever attempted a land theft the way the Board of County Commissioners did,” South Walton beach property owner Mike Huckabee told County Commission candidate Danny Glidewell in an email last July.

As a result of the standoff between the property owners and the county, some visitors will again encounter "private property" and "no trespassing" signs to their left and/or right the instant they step off a public beach access and onto the sand. They’ll be obliged to walk in some cases on wet sand to get to a place where they won’t be accosted when they find a place to sit.

 

Walton County Sheriff Mike Adkinson said his deputies already are being called out to coastal properties to settle disputes between owners and beachgoers over who has the right to be where. In many of this year’s cases, it’s the same owners that last year griped loudly about private property rights and the same customary use advocates testing the resolve of deputies who have been instructed not to arrest beachgoers for trespassing, he said.

“Essentially, it’s the same this year as last, and it puts us in a terribly untenable situation. We want to protect the rights of the property owners and the beachgoers as well,” Adkinson said.

“For the people who think this is a license to do whatever they want, they’re wrong, and you can’t build an iron fence down to the water, either,” Adkinson said. “I don’t want Walton County to be portrayed negatively because of the actions of a few people.”

The battle over customary use has also affected beach services in Walton County.

Brian Kellenberger, the director of beach operations for the county’s Tourist Development Council, said keeping up with the garbage generated by beachgoers will be one of his agency’s biggest challenges when the county becomes inundated with visitors.

For years the TDC collected garbage both on private and public beach properties, but that ended when private owners, wary that the county's presence on their land would give the county another argument in its favor, requested that trash collection stop.

“We’re still getting to all the public beach accesses and we are still able to get to about 60 percent of the beach, but that means about 40 percent don’t have daily garbage service,” Kellenberger said. “We’re still compromised in some areas, garbage-wise.”

From the county government perspective, the biggest challenge of the 2019 tourist season, Kellenberger said, will be informing visitors about the battle over customary use and what it hopes to accomplish.

 

The County Commission last November voted unanimously to seek a judge’s determination that its claim of customary use was valid and the county’s beaches should be publicly accessible. On Dec. 11, it filed a lawsuit seeking a declaratory judgment.

Before filing the suit, the county notified 1,194 beach property owners of its intention to take legal action. Thus far, 602 of those owners have hired lawyers to intervene on their behalf in the court case and resist the county’s effort.

Walton Circuit Court Judge David Green has been assigned the case and at some point will rule either for or against the county. Most people involved in the case figure Green’s ruling won’t resolve anything, and that whichever side loses will appeal.

David Raushkolb, a Seaside businessman and customary use supporter who is one of a handful of residents who has filed to intervene on the side of the county, said he believes the case will eventually make its way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Although a compromise would save property owners and taxpayers millions of dollars, there doesn’t appear to be any appetite for that on either side.

“What is a compromise? I don’t even know what that means,” said Daniel Uhlfelder, a customary use proponent and the attorney who represents the group that wants to intervene on the side of the county. “For hundreds of years people have used the beaches, and now they’re trying to say we can’t. The compromise is just letting people use the beach.”

Glidewell, who won his County Commission race by taking the publicly popular stance of claiming to be a customary use supporter, earned support from property owners by assuring them in private conversations he would seek compromise everyone could live with.

He has since gone back on that promise and blames property owners for his decision to do so. The property owners don’t want compromise, they want surrender, he said recently.

“I will not be bullied or threatened into anything,” he told Huckabee in an April 8 email.

Not all private property owners appear to be as deeply entrenched in their views as Glidewell has surmised. Suzanne Harris, the president of private Edgewater Condominiums, has maintained throughout the battle that she won’t run people off of the beach behind her complex, as long as they behave.

“We need to come to some sort of compromise. This community is so split you’ll never go forward with anything if you have two factions that are fighting over everything,” Harris said. “Maybe if we could come up with something and we could live with it this summer, and we could live with it again next summer ... just give us a chance to try to work things out.”

Huckabee, the former governor of Arkansas, offered his own compromise to the customary use/private property conundrum even before the county passed its 2017 ordinance.

He suggested something he called Beach Share, a strictly voluntary exercise in which property owners would, if they so chose, offer to allow the public to use their beaches.

Under the plan, visitors to a private parcel would agree to abide by clearly stated rules. If they refused, they could be arrested and prosecuted under trespass statutes.

If Beach Share was approved as authored by Huckabee, owners would be immune from liability for visitors to their beach and law officers would be provided to deal with rules violations. Signs would be provided to mark Beach Share properties, and Beach Share homes would receive tax breaks based on the amount of beach area that was shared.

When he was campaigning for office and communicating with Huckabee about a potential for compromise, Glidewell said he saw Beach Share as a reasonable place to start.

But Huckabee, who declined to speak directly to the Northwest Florida Daily News, has expressed in emails his frustration with the five county commissioners who were in office when he proposed his plan. He said only one ever contacted him about the idea, and was obviously not serious about doing anything with the proposal.

He also expressed disappointment to Glidewell after the new county commissioner decided he wouldn't look for compromise on the customary beach issue.

"You said you can only 'work with people who talk to you.' I did. I offered you a proposal that you even acknowledged was a reasonable starting point for some resolution of the beach controversy," Huckabee said in an email. "Once you were elected, I never heard back."