About 60 people gathered at dinner time on a Thursday evening at an off-the-beaten-path church, to discuss taking their fight for a repeal of the law that wiped out the county’s customary use ordinance to the Florida Legislature.

SANTA ROSA BEACH — Walton County residents opposed to their beaches being held hostage, and tired of a frustrating, state concocted, route to a declaration of customary use, are preparing for a march on Tallahassee.


About 60 people gathered at dinner time on a Thursday evening at an off-the-beaten-path church, to discuss taking their fight for a repeal of the law that wiped out the county’s customary use ordinance to the Florida Legislature.


"Tonight is a very important night, it is a call to action," said Dave Rauschkolb, the chairman of Florida Beaches for All, who co-hosted the event with fellow activist Samantha Herring.


Rauschkolb and Herring were recruiting help from the community to assist them in convincing legislators to repeal the 2018 law that was created through passage of the infamous HB 631. They want to round up a crowd to travel with them to the state’s capital on Feb. 10 to participate in a noon rally to repeal the law.


Two more meetings, one in DeFuniak Springs and another in Miramar Beach, are being scheduled.


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"All we have to gain if we win is our beaches," Rauschkolb said. "And all we have to lose is our beaches."


The bill, signed into law by then Gov. Rick Scott, shredded a Walton County ordinance that opened the dry sand on its 26-mile coastline to the public. It also opened the door for private beach property owners, many of whom hold deeds to the mean high water line, the right to call out beach goers for trespassing on the dry sand behind their homes.


HB 631, as it is still best known, went into affect July 1, 2018, and was, according to sponsor Sen. Kathleen Passidomo, designed simply to create a legal path for counties to establish public beaches for all by proving, through the court system, the existence of customary use.


Customary use is the theory that everyone is entitled to utilize the beach because beaches have been used recreationally for as long as mankind has been accessing them.


But a lawsuit filed by the Walton County Commission seeking to obtain a declaration of customary use has only created more chaos.


No trespassing signs have been posted, fencing has been laid out and security guards have been hired to defend private beaches all along the Walton County coastline.


The debate over private property rights on the state’s beaches has spread from Walton County since HB 631 was signed into law and the fencing and signage that has now grown familiar to Northwest Florida residents is appearing all along the state’s coastlines.


House bill 6063, to repeal the law created by HB 631 was introduced this session by Fort Lauderdale-area lawmaker Evan Jenne. A companion bill has been filed in the Senate by Lori Berman, another South Florida Democrat.


Jenne was not available for comment Thursday, but in a recent interview acknowledged the difficulty he, as a Democrat in a Republican dominated Legislature, would encounter in moving his bill.


His best hope, he said, was strong citizen support.


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"There are few things that turn the tide in Tallahassee more than a whole bunch of voters telling people they’ll vote against them if they don’t do something," he said.


Jenne said his research had found that the law created through HB 631 is almost universally considered "a really bad idea" in Florida. He also said he believes that if the bill had been more carefully considered in 2018 it wouldn’t have received the legislative support it has.


Herring told the crowd gathered Thursday that several groups had joined Florida Beaches for All in the effort to encourage attendance at the Feb. 10 rally in Tallahassee. Rauschkolb said Walton County attendance was particularly important because the county had been singled out in the 2018 legislation as the only county to have its customary use ordinance wiped off the books.


State Rep. Mel Ponder, a Republican representing Okaloosa County, which has seen its own share of private property disputes arise on its beaches, said before the session he wouldn’t likely support Jenne’s repeal bill, but might consider working to amend the customary use law.


"If the bill were to simply amend and improve the former bill, I would be open to looking at ideas like that," said Ponder, who is currently running for a county commission seat.


Rauschkolb and Herring were urging those in attendance Thursday to contact all legislators who will have a hand in moving HB and to attend a Feb. 10 rally in support of HB 6063, which would repeal the 631 law and SB 1680, the Senate companion bill for the repeal option. They’ve established a website at restorecu.com.


Herring said that though HB 631 initially impacted only Walton County, other counties around the state are beginning to feel the impact created by the move to privatize Florida beaches. She said groups from around the state are promoting the February rally in Tallahassee.


"They’re all organizing to get folks to the state capital," she said.


Sen. Kathleen Passidomo, who sponsored the Senate version of HB 631 in 2018, has rejected out of hand any suggestion that the bill was responsible for the mess that has been created on Walton County’s beaches. She did not respond to questions sent to her email address Thursday, but has asserted in the past that the law she helped create was simply about process.


Join us at this Thursday's Town Hall Community Meeting at the Simple Faith Church/Warehouse 360, 360 WRM Circle, Santa Rosa Beach Fl, North 83, off HWY 98. 6:00 PM. Limited supply of Tees for our friends who will come to Tallahassee to REPEAL THE BAD BEACH BILL! #restoreCU pic.twitter.com/pEbHCx30ro

— Dave Rauschkolb (@DaveRauschkolb) January 28, 2020

"The new law is a simple process bill that gives local governments the tools they need to provide customary use access to the public on private land adjacent to the public beach," her "Customary Use Facts" memorandum states.


But Walton County has experienced first hand legal problems the new law has created. Several times Rauschkolb and Herring recalled Judge David Green’s reference to the wording of the law as "ambiguous."


Louis Svehla, spokesman for the Walton County Commission, said the county’s lobbyist has been working to enlighten lawmakers as to the issues Walton County has encountered in seeking a customary use declaration.


"We are talking to legislators about how the process created is not working," Svehla said.


Among the questions sent to Passidome on Thursday was one asking whether she would consider, if not repealing the bill, tweaking it.


Walton County’s lawsuit was originally filed by the county in December of 2018. A year later, despite Green’s diligent efforts to hear arguments from both sides, the case has gone nowhere.


The biggest problem encountered thus far for the county has been in notifying the 1,194 properties, and well over 4,000 owners, potentially impacted by the customary use litigation.



The second, most recent delay caused by notification issues occurred in November when an obviously frustrated Green begrudgingly granted an emergency motion filed by attorney Will Dunaway.


Green at that time gave the county 21 days to notify 420 beach property owners and an additional 45 days for those owners to decide whether they want to intervene in the lawsuit. It is anticipated the next hearing in the case could come as late as May.


FILE PHOTOS: Walton County beaches - staying near the water line


The issue that created the November delay was a failure on the part of the county to send out proper notice, according to Ted Borowski, one of a myriad of attorneys with clients who are suing the county.


Borowski said after the hearing that he didn’t think anywhere in the November hearing had anyone specified what would entail proper notice under the state statute lawmakers are seeking to repeal.


"I don’t think the notice the county sends out this time will be proper either," he said. "I think we’ll be having this discussion six months to a year from now."