DeFUNIAK SPRINGS – “The unique nature of the litigation” upon which Walton County is soon to embark, and the “lack of precedent for proceedings of this type,” were cited by Judge David Green as justification for ordering a case management conference to discuss a burgeoning customary use lawsuit.
He will preside this afternoon over that conference, which could draw as many as 30 lawyers with client interests and enough onlookers that officials decided to relocate the 1:30 p.m. event from a DeFuniak Springs courtroom to the Walton County Commission Chambers.
Green said in his 5-page order the goal of the gathering is to create a schedule “to more efficiently guide the progress of the action.” The order lays out six general topics for discussion, including motions to dismiss, parties and responsive pleadings, mediation, discovery, consolidation of parcels and logistics.
The lawsuit over which Green has been tasked with presiding originated on Dec. 11, 2018 when attorneys representing Walton County filed four documents, including a complaint for declaration of recreational customary use.
As dictated by HB 631, the county, which lost a customary use ordinance to the bill’s passage, must have a court rule that its beaches should be opened to the public by virtue of the fact the coast line has been accessed and utilized by mankind for as long as civilization has existed.
Coastal private property owners, many of whom have deeds on the beach extending to the mean high water line, have objected in droves to the county’s effort to seek a customary use declaration.
Since Jan. 17, when Inlet Beach resident Lois Payne submitted a hand written note stating her opposition to recreational customary use of her property and requesting to be allowed to intervene in the case, 966 documents have been filed with the Walton County Clerk of Court. Most were filed by homeowners or residential properties siding with Payne against the county and seeking to intervene in the case.
Still, Kent Safriet, an attorney representing at least 60 individual clients in the customary use lawsuit, believes the number one priority for Green when the case management conference convenes Monday will be answering the question of what to do about 76 still unaccounted for property owners.
On Friday, Walton County Attorney Sidney Noyes and David Theriaque, its land use attorney, filed notification that its second effort to verify 1,194 private properties along its 26 miles of coastline had been alerted to the lawsuit had fallen 76 properties short.
The notification states that from May, when 130 properties were identified as non-responsive to county efforts to contact the owners, through July, “the county received return receipts for 47 of the remaining 130 beachfront property owners.”
“As of this date there are 76 beachfront property owners who have not moved to intervene in this action and for which the county has not yet received return receipts for the notice of filing,” the notification states.
Another issue to be decided, according to Green’s order, is whether to consider the customary use declaration for all properties involved in the litigation at one time or “whether the issues related to each parcel of property must be considered separately.”
The order also leaves open the possibility of “similarly situated parcels” being clumped together for consideration in a single hearing.
Safriet said the consolidation of parcels issues likely won’t be taken into consideration until later in the courtroom proceedings.