After 14 months of struggling to notify the 1,194 beach front property owners potentially impacted by a declaration of customary use, attorneys for Walton County have whittled the number they have yet to make contact with to one individual.

Where oh where are you John B. Higdon?


After 14 months of struggling to notify the 1,194 beach front property owners potentially impacted by a declaration of customary use, attorneys for Walton County have whittled the number they have yet to make contact with to one individual.


That would be John B. Higdon, formerly of South Walton, now likely of Quincy.


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"We’ve got some good leads on Mr. Higdon," County Attorney Sidney Noyes reported Monday at a case management hearing set up in hopes of moving the county’s lawsuit against the property owners forward.


The lawsuit, filed in December of 2018, seeks to have the white sand areas along Walton County’s 26 miles of coastline declared public by virtue of customary use — the fact that they have been enjoyed recreationally for as long as mankind has been around.


Most beach property owners, many of whom hold deeds stating their property extends from their homes all the way to wet sand at the Gulf of Mexico, have intervened in the lawsuit to prevent the county from taking what they claim as their land.


ALSO: Walton’s customary use case again delayed by notification issues


The lawsuit itself was necessitated by a law passed in 2018 that obliterated a Walton County customary use ordinance and dictated that such ordinances could only be established through the courts. Homeowners began erecting "no trespassing" signs and fences and calling the law on trespassers.


Walton was the only county directly initially impacted by the law, and the county attorneys have struggled mightily to notify the 1,349 beach property owners the legislation said must be notified before a lawsuit could go forward.


On a handful of occasions, court proceedings have been brought to a screeching halt because the county had failed to notify everyone it needed to notify.


ALSO: Attorney Daniel Uhlfelder no longer representing Florida Beaches for All


An affidavit filed with the court by Noyes on Feb. 28 states that as recently as January there were still 172 property owners who had either not received notice or failed to intervene after receiving notice but not contacted the county.


On Jan. 6, attorney Kent Safriet filed a motion to dismiss the customary use lawsuit. He argued that by the date of the hearing held Monday, the county would have had 318 days to notify the property owners and failed to do so.


"If you can’t file a lawsuit and not get all the people served in 14 months, you ought not to have filed a lawsuit," Safriet said recently when asked about the motion.


Following the filing of Safriet’s motion the county managed to reduce the number of un-notified people to 25 as of Feb. 26, and used a process server to insure that all but Higdon remained unnoticed by the time of the 1:30 p.m. hearing.


Higdon has not paid property taxes in Walton County for a couple of years now, Noyes told the court, and appears to be living in Quincy.


Noyes told County Judge David Green that she was confident she could locate Higdon within 30 days, and Green said he will no longer hold up court proceedings to allow the notification to be confirmed.


With that decision out of the way, it was agreed that following a 45-day period set aside to let the most recently notified homeowners decide whether or not to join the lawsuit, some motions filed in the case will be heard.


The first set of motions will be those for which legal discovery is not necessary.


"We’re moving the case forward, finally," said David Pleat, one of numerous attorneys representing beach owners.


Among the motions to be heard over a two-day period will be several seeking to dismiss the county’s case. Other pending motions include those to sever particular clients from the customary use lawsuit and Pleat’s own, to force the county to clarify its intentions.


"I want to see more clarity in the lawsuit," he said. "Are we going to proceed property by property or discuss customary use along all 26 miles of coastline?"


He said he expects the next court proceeding, likely to be held in mid- to late-May, to be "interesting."


"We may finally get to see what the court is thinking," Pleat said.