Grumpy rich people to public: Get off my lawn – er, public beach!

deputies on the beach
Sit here: Deputies draw a line in the sand in Walton County in the video seen 'round the world

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.”

Julie Hauserman
Julie Hauserman has been writing about Florida for more than 30 years. She is a former Capitol bureau reporter for the St. Petersburg (Tampa Bay) Times, and reported for The Stuart News and the Tallahassee Democrat. She was a national commentator for National Public Radio’s Weekend Edition Sunday and The Splendid Table . She has won many awards, including two nominations for the Pulitzer Prize. Her work is featured in several Florida anthologies, including The Wild Heart of Florida , The Book of the Everglades , and Between Two Rivers . Her new book is Drawn to The Deep, a University Press of Florida biography of Florida cave diver and National Geographic explorer Wes Skiles.

11 COMMENTS

  1. FYI, English Common Law is the basis of Customary Use, not the reverse, ie. being used by the attorneys challenging the new law.

  2. I feel the New Jersey folks need to head on back where they came from and take their “Yankee” laws with them. I totally agree with the sheriff. “Common courtesy could resolve a great deal.” I can’t wait for voting time to roll around again. Southerns won’t forget Mr. Scott ( get used to the title change) and the others who voted for this ridiculous change.

  3. There are two sides to this story. When tourists are disrespectful and play their boom boxes loud, take the chairs you have already rented and you have a frisbee flying by your head something does need to be done. I don’t want people banned from our beautiful beaches but there has to be a compromise. AND the chair vendors need to be regulated and not hog every access to the beach with row after row of empty chairs they HOPE someone will rent!

    • While your complaints are valid, the issue here is the absolutely insane claim made by the officers that the public is restricted to the “wet” sand. According to them that means IN the surf. And no one will be banned. The beach from the mean high tide line to the water is federally owned and is open to the public. And I have to wonder just how many property owners know where that line is?? Also, if your legal description of your lot is 75′ w x 100’L that length doesn’t skip the dunes….that means, if there is dry sand (above the MHTL) that starts 100’1″ from the front boundary of your lot, your owner’s rights END at 100′. I was amazed at how many people think that, when they bought an “ocean front” lot the they thought that literally meant they own all the way to the water. You purchased a lot with specific dimensions and, regardless of any other law, that’ s ALL you own even if 50% of it is protected dunes…..

  4. Where is your professionalism? I think you are very rude blaming this on “someone from New Jersey”. Your state representatives passed HB 631. And truthfully most people who populate Florida beaches are from neighboring states. If it wasn’t for these houses being built, most of Florida wouldn’t be able to afford basic things like public water, roads and schools, hence the bad rap Florida has for uneducated rednecks. : ) BTW New Jersey is one of the richest places in the world. Sorry you don’t like the fact that people from New Jersey make so much money and can afford second home beach mansions!

  5. Hmmm…”wet sand” doesn’t literally mean the sand that is currently wet. The law actually states (FEDERAL Law that is) that the beach seaward of the mean high tide line is in the public domain. Obviously these officers would be severely challenged to find that MHTL……Still, we have rights and we need to defend them.

  6. Give it a rest, Cole. That incidence is few and far between. 98 percent of us just lie on the beach and get sunburned or play a little volleyball and get sunburned.
    Walton County Sheriff is not interpreting the law right. Wet sand is measured over 19 year period.

  7. Ok, so do the homeowners now have to pay income tax on the increased value of the land they own? Do the homeowners also have to pay higher property tax because they now own more, and more valuable land? If underage kids are drinking on the beach that is now the homeowners, and they get arrested, is the homeowner on the hook for allowing underage drinking on his property? If the beach is not fenced and someone steps on an old broken bottle, can the victim sue the homeowner, like with slip and falls on any property?

  8. Don’t blame New Jersey. Rich people come from everywhere and Floridians voted for Scott, not once
    but twice. Some rich people think they own the world and are entitled to everything, sounds like your
    Condo owners fit in that Group. They have little respect for anyone who doesn’t meet their standards
    and feels we are invading their private property, even if they don’t own the Beach. You can’t reason
    with these people.

    But we can do everything in our power to make sure that Rick Scott never gets elected for anything
    Ever again. How anyone could have voted for this Medicare thief in the first place is beyond belief.

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