Citizens rising up against the Florida Legislature, Gov. Rick Scott, and private property zealots

Cartoon by Andy Marlette, Pensacola News Journal

There’s a citizen uprising happening in the Panhandle’s Walton County. So far, about 8,000 people have signed sworn affidavits asserting that they use the beaches there. Probably not a single one of them thought they’d have to sign a legal document to prove they go to the beach – in their beach town.

About the biggest regional controversy used to be whether you ought to wear closed-toe shoes instead of flip flops to a wedding.

That was before Walton County got discovered by the mega-mansion crowd. So now, the grassroots effort to save the best of a good Florida place has begun. Because of an obnoxious law passed by the state Legislature (which targets Walton County specifically), locals are now fighting for public access to beaches they’ve enjoyed for generations.

“I moved here when I was six years old,” says Walton County Commissioner Tony Anderson. “My mama was an avid pompano fisherman. I have chased sand fleas up and down this beach. I’ve literally walked all 26 miles of beach here in my 63 years. I’ve crabbed, fished, and camped.”

A recent county commission meeting to discuss the issue was filled to bursting – some 800-1,000 attended. Residents have formed a new nonprofit group, Florida Beaches for All  and a slogan #StandYourSand.

The troublesome state beach access law at issue was pushed by some Gulf-front property owners, including, as it turns out, a famous one: former Arkansas governor, past presidential candidate and Fox News darling Mike Huckabee.

Huckabee has a house on the beach in Walton County, and he doesn’t want the riff-raff in front of his place, playing Frisbee, letting their dogs run around, and hanging beach towels on his sand fence, he explained in an email he sent to a Republican South Florida state senator who helped push the bill, Kathleen Passidomo. Huckabee explains he’s just spent 18 hours flying back from Qatar (I’d like to know quite a bit more about that), but monitored the legislative committee meeting on the Internet and wants to thank her for the beach access bill.

About that bill – which became law July 1. You may remember the viral video this summer which showed a couple of Walton County sheriff’s deputies trying to show a beachgoer where he was allowed to sit on the beach. They literally had to draw a line in the sand. The beachgoer was local attorney Daniel Uhlfelder, who set up chairs in front of a condo complex, and someone called the Walton Sheriff’s Department. Deputies told Uhlfelder and his friend they were trespassing. Uhlfelder and one of the deputies walked towards the Gulf and drew a line. The “public” area they identify is in the wet sand along the wave break line – pretty much in the Gulf.

Walton County Sherriff Mike Adkinson told the Phoenix that he doesn’t want to arrest beachgoers, and that the Legislature needs to fix the confusing new state law ASAP. “It puts us in a horrible situation,” he said.

The trouble goes back a few years, when some Walton County waterfront homeowners started putting up ‘No trespassing’ signs to keep regular people from sitting on the beach in front of their condos and houses. This was a shock to locals. Florida has long abided by “customary use” of our beachfront, meaning folks have been using the beaches for decades. Most Florida counties have a customary use law to ensure public access, but Walton County didn’t, so the county commission passed one in mid-2016.

That’s when private-property-rights zealots hired lobbyists to go to the Legislature to circumvent the local county commission’s wishes. They ended up with the stealthy H.B. 631, which passed during the 2018 legislative session and Gov. Rick Scott signed it into law.

The law put a target on Walton County’s back, 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 allowing public beach access. Except Walton County hadn’t passed its law by that date, and those pushing to close public beach access knew that. Walton County was now purposefully teed up to be a property rights test case.

“I’m very offended that Walton County was singled out,” Commissioner Anderson says. “This is just a disaster for Walton County. We have four million visitors a year. We’ve heard about visitors who came this year and were treated shabbily and they are not coming back.”

When news of the new law went public, Gov. Scott – Oh He of the Election-year Environmental Awakening – issued an Executive Order which “urges counties to protect public beach access.”

Except Scott’s executive order is not a law, so it doesn’t count. “Unfortunately the governor can’t nullify the law,” explained Sheriff Adkinson.

Scott  – who is running for U.S. Senate against Bill Nelson – hilariously ducked out of his own campaign stop Sept. 9 at a Walton County restaurant after his jittered staffers saw some gray-haired protesters waiting.  “He’s scared of little old ladies in tennis shoes,” one of the sign-holders told the Tampa Bay Times. One protest sign which must have peeved the Scott camp: “Republicans for Bill Nelson.”

Now a new chapter in the fight for Walton County beaches begins: In November, the Walton County Commission plans to vote on a new customary use ordinance, to try to put things back the way they were before the Legislature and Gov. Scott mucked them up. The lawsuits against Walton County from the property rights camp will begin again, and the county will have to pay handsomely to defend its right to keep public access on beaches.

“It’s going to be expensive, but it’s going to be more expensive to lose this case. Losing access to our beaches could be a total meltdown of our economy,” Commissioner Anderson says.

There’s a lot to unpack in the whiny email that Huckabee sent to the state legislator, begging her for help to keep the plebeians away from his castle, but I’ll share a few choice nuggets:

“This,” he writes, “should not be a political decision based on popularity…” (just let that sink in for a minute, all you non-monarchs) “but a legal decision based on the Constitutional premise of private property rights, the very foundation of liberty.”

Huckabee explains that he grew up “dirt poor” in Arakansas, and “never thought I would see salt water in person, much less live on a beach.” He says he gives to church, and to charity “and certainly to Walton County!”

His beef, he explains, is that beachfront owners are “demonized as ‘greedy, selfish, and rich’ owners who want to deprive the poor of their rights.”

Lemme think a minute. Do they have that old saying in Arkansas? The one about the pot and the kettle? I think they do.

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.

7 COMMENTS

  1. The beaches belong to all Florida taxpayers! Rick Scott doesn’t have what it takes to stand up to wealthy people, developers, and Big Sugar. He needs to exit the political stage!.

  2. Julie,
    You have this backwards. The county will be the plaintiff, suing 5,000+ property owners who will be the defendants in court to take away their property rights. What you weren’t told is that 75% of Walton beaches have been private property for many decades. Walton county commissioners reviewed, approved and signed neighborhoods with private beaches back in the 60’s, 70’s, 80’s. 90’s and now wants to flip these private beaches to public beaches to make way for new development and density. The only reason Walton county was singled out was it was the only one of the other two customary use cases which didn’t obtain a court order, they just passed an ordinance with commissioner vote. Nowhere in Florida can you obtain an easement or right to someone else’s property without going through the courts. This is what HB631 required. The 8,000 affidavits are being taken from anyone who ever set foot on Walton county, not just residents, how many are residents, the number is far less. Feel free to contact me for the facts in this case.

  3. The citizens for public beaches & shores, Fernandina Beach, Amelia Island, Nassau county, Florida collected 9,000 notorized customary use affidavits and created a customary use ordinance in the time between hb631 becoming law and the effective day of the bill July 1, 2018. We are now collecting repeal petitions. Lowell Hall president citizens for public beaches and shores .

  4. Thank you for rising up against these politicians. I am sick and tired of politicians who don’t care about the environment in Florida. They have created a dead zone along the gulf coast. ENOUGH IS ENOUGH!

  5. “My fellow Americans…..Mike’s a tremendous guy, he should have his own tremendous beach in front of his tremendous house. Now….we’re going to give everyone else a great great 500 yard stretch of beach in front of the wonderful sewage treatment plant AND Mexico is going to pay for it!”
    So now tell me why people think Conservatives want to help and preserve the middle class? Not really seeing it. I hope Rick Scott gets his carcass booted out along with the big orange Cheeto.
    Vote Dem or independent!

  6. I wonder WWJD, Mr Huckabee!? It does not seem that you are following one of the two commandments Jesus gave us! “Love thy neighbor as thyself” THINK ABOUT IT! I have been going to Destin since I was eight years old. Hope God does not send a hurricane to flatten that property! But, insurance will pay to rebuild the high risk property…(;-P

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