Walton County's beaches can be hard to get to

Tom McLaughlin

Kathleen Passidomo, the Naples Republican who served as the Senate sponsor of House Bill 631, likes to point out when asked about the controversial legislation that “most of the beaches in the state of Florida are owned by the public.”

That may be true for the state, but it is not true in Walton County, the single county directly affected by the bill. More than 64 percent of Walton County’s coastline is privately owned, and many owners hold deeds extending all the way to the mean high water line.

Passidomo, a South Florida Republican with her sights on the Senate presidency, also tells people when asked about HB 631 that its passage was about policy, and not ropes, signs or fences. And while that may be true in theory, there’s no denying the South Walton reality of not only "no trespassing" and "private property" signs, but also security guards paid to escort beachgoers to wet sand areas.

David Rauschkolb, a South Walton businessman and advocate for opening all the county’s beaches to the public, blames the state legislation, which took effect July 1, 2018, with rendering many of the county’s 44 neighborhood beach accesses nearly obsolete. That development alone, he said, could seriously weaken the local economy.

“That’s (HB 631) what started all this turmoil. All the beaches used to be a 10-minute walking distance,” Rauschkolb said. “Now people are saying, ‘We have to get in a car to go to the beach. Renters no longer want to rent in our house because they have to drive to the beach.’ Thousands of homes have beach access but no beach, just a strip of land leading down to the water.”

Walton County’s Tourist Development Council has recognized the impacts recent political developments have had on the neighborhood beach accesses.

“The public land associated with them varies from one to another,” said David Demarest, the TDC's communications director.

The TDC instead prefer to steer beachgoers to eight regional beach accesses.

“These are ideal,” Demarest said. “They are associated with wide stretches of public beach and include parking, restroom facilities and lifeguards.”

The TDC has funded three new regional beach accesses, each featuring at least 20 parking spots. The first, at Dune Allen Beach, will be ready to open by late this summer, according to TDC Beach Development Coordinator Brian Kellenberger. Regional accesses at Miramar Beach and Seagrove Beach will come on line next year.

During the summer, the TDC also pays for free day-use admission to Grayton Beach State Park and Topsail Hill Preserve State Park, Demarest said. This “opens up miles of additional beachfront, along with parking, shaded picnic areas, and restroom facilities.”

“Partnering with the state parks essentially gives us two additional regional beach accesses that are equipped with parking and other facilities,” Demarest said. “It’s really all about providing more free opportunities to enjoy the beach, less crowding on any particular beach, and a better experience for both our visitors and locals.”

Six of the eight existing regional beach accesses are located in the mid-section of South Walton, as are the two state parks that allow free access during the summer.

The westernmost access, the Miramar Beach Regional Beach Access, opens onto five miles of coastline that by virtue of a beach restoration project completed in 2007 are open to the public. The public beach stretches from the Okaloosa County line east to Grayton Beach State Park and extends landward between 40 and 60 feet from the tide line, Kellenberger said.

Seaside, the iconic County Road 30A community where “The Truman Show” was filmed, is home to a regional beach access. The Santa Clara Regional Beach Access, in Santa Rosa Beach, is the easternmost of the central South Walton regional beach accesses.

There’s a long stretch of 30A between Santa Rosa Beach and the final Walton County regional beach access, the Inlet Beach Regional Beach Access. The ability of the general public to find their way to the Gulf in this portion of the county is extremely limited.

That is apparently how residents of wealthy beach communities such as Alys Beach and Rosemary Beach like it.

“We do believe our beaches are private,” Rosemary Beach Town Manager David Bailey said. “It’s relatively rare that we have to tell people to leave, but we do have signs and we do remind people we are private.”

Bailey said Rosemary Beach existed as a quiet little town and had “been able to run that middle ground” as a beach community for about 20 years. Recently, though, thanks to the Walton County Commission suing to obtain a declaration that would make all of Walton’s beaches public, Rosemary Beach “had to take a side in the dispute.”

Its homeowner’s association, along with 602 other private beach property owners, has filed with the Circuit Court to intervene in defiance of the county’s request for a declaration of customary use.

“We felt like things were friendly and we had no conflict,” Bailey said. “Now we’ve been kind of drawn into things, and we’re kind of worried about where it is going.”

A marketing person for Alys Beach — the community to the west of Rosemary Beach — provided as a community contact, failed to return email messages.

Farther east near the Bay County line, residents of Inlet Beach have a different perspective on beach life than that of their neighbors.

Inlet Beach, which 70 years ago was a remote location, was known then as Soldier’s Beach, according to Kellenberger. It got the name because the community opened its beaches to welcome home soldiers returning from World War II.

Some sense of that pride in sharing seemingly remains.

“We are the last bastion of sanity,” said Rich Jaffe, the president of the Historic Inlet Beach Neighborhood Association.

The regional beach access at Inlet Beach opens onto about 1,000 feet of public beach, and there are two other neighborhood beach accesses between Inlet Beach and the Bay County line, Jaffe said.

“Private beaches?” Jaffe said. “We haven’t gotten particularly snarled up in that.”

Inlet Beach’s biggest issue, he said, is with vendors. This year a county pilot program being run off its Orange Street access will force beach workers to remove umbrella and chair set-ups that aren’t being used. The program starts today.

TDC officials are looking east to the area between Santa Rosa Beach and Alys Beach to find land they can buy to increase the number of beach accesses, Kellenberger said.

“Our biggest beach access issues are on the east end,” he said.

The effort has met with some resistance.

A recent attempt to buy property opening to a significant swath of public beach was thwarted when homeowners pooled about $5 million to buy a defunct bed and breakfast parcel out from under a county offer.

“Some of those areas are pretty much self-contained and allow access only to people in their community,” Kellenberger said. “That continues to be part of the problem, you have these well-established, gated communities, and opportunities are limited down there.

“We are getting offers,” he added. “Some are doable, others are outrageous.”