Maybe we’ve all been taking our right to stroll unfettered along Florida’s beaches for granted. Because it looks like a flap that exploded last week over public beach access way up in the Panhandle’s Walton County may be a test case for a land grab by wealthy waterfront residents to shut out the rest of us.
Let’s hope not. A video taken on the beach by a Walton County attorney, Daniel Uhlfelder, and his friend racked up over 600,000 Facebook and You Tube views last week. Uhlfelder and a friend set up their beach chairs in front of a condo complex, then someone in the condos called the Walton Sheriff’s Department. It all has to do with a sneaky new state law that went into effect July 1 (more on that mess later.)
Deputies went down to the beach, and told Uhlfelder and his friend they were trespassing. In the video, Uhlfelder asks the officers to show him, specifically, which part of the beach he’s allowed to be sitting on under the new law. He’s also carrying a copy of a new executive order from Gov. Rick Scott which does not actually clear anything up (more on that mess later.)
So then everyone looks confused, and Uhlfelder and the deputies walk down towards the Gulf and draw a line in the sand. Basically, the “public” area they identify is in the wet sand along the wave break line. Not where you want to be sitting if you have small children, or if you’d rather not put your chair in the Gulf.
It hit a nerve, big time. By the end of last week, Uhlfelder’s video and story has spread across the globe. His nephew saw a report about it while he was traveling in Peru.
“There’s something about it that’s resonating with people,” Uhlfelder said. “I’ve never been asked to leave a beach. People are shocked to see a regular guy getting harassed by the police on the beach. I thought I was in the twilight zone.”
For his part, Walton County Sheriff Mike Adkinson says he doesn’t want to arrest beach goers, and that the confounding new state law needs to be fixed, pronto. His deputies are caught in a legal fight that they don’t have a dog in.
“It puts us in a horrible situation,” Adkinson said. “We believe this is a matter best resolved by the court or the Legislature. It just needs to be resolved.”
The backstory, abbreviated: A few years ago, some Walton County waterfront homeowners started putting up ‘No trespassing’ signs and fences to keep regular people from sitting on the beach in front of their condos and houses.
This seemed plain weird. And kind of mean. Florida has long abided by the concept of “customary use” of our beachfront, meaning folks have been using the beaches for decades, long before someone from New Jersey came down here and plopped a mega-mansion beside the dunes.
Most Florida counties have their own local “customary use” laws on the books. Despite being a heavy tourist area, Walton County did not have such an ordinance. So the county commission in 2016 passed a customary use law to ensure that the public wouldn’t be hassled by Condo Commandos or Lords of the Castles when they came for a picnic and a swim.
But the get-off-my-lawn private-property-rights zealots invested a lot of money on a lot of lobbyists, who then went to work at the statehouse in Tallahassee to do an end-run around the local county commission. They created the stealthy H.B. 631, which passed during the 2018 legislative session and Gov. Scott signed it into law. All was pretty quiet until it went into effect July 1.
The law was sly because it said any county that had a customary use law in effect on or before January 2016 could keep its law, and thus keep the status quo that allows public beach access. Except Walton County was the only Florida county that hadn’t passed its law by that date, and the lobbyists – and the homeowners who hired them – knew that.
It was set up to be a property rights test case, with the target on Walton County’s back. Lawsuits are already flying, with big-bucks attorneys invoking things like English Common Law (seriously) and more legal action is coming. There’s been a smattering of controversy on other beaches around the state, with waterfront homeowners boldly blocking public access. The law says each county is now going to have to sort the legalities out.
When the flap went public, Gov. Scott engaged in some more of the election-year environmentalism he’s been practicing of late and issued an Executive Order which “urges counties to protect public beach access.”
Except the executive order is not a law, so it doesn’t clear the murk.
“Unfortunately,” Sheriff Adkinson says, “the governor can’t nullify the law.”
The Legislature or the courts will have to wade back into the fray.
The sooner the better, the sheriff says. He got one missive from the local State Attorney saying it’s not a good idea to prosecute beach goers using the new state law. Six days later, he got a follow up letter saying that “trespassing could be successfully prosecuted in Walton County.”
“We have not brought any cases, and it’s not our intention to do so, absent any extraordinary circumstances,” the sheriff says. “So much of this could be resolved with some common courtesy.”
His phone has been ringing constantly. “There are,” he says diplomatically, “very passionate people on all sides.”