Beachfront property owners could soon take back their rights to the beach

SOUTH WALTON, Fla. (WJHG/WECP) - Recently Walton County went through a battle to figure out who has rights to access the beach - the public or property owners.

But after the county ruled in favor of the public, a bill making its way through the state capital could stop beachgoers in their tracks.

"People come here because of the beaches, and for chains and signs to go up again and tell them they are not welcome will not be good for anybody's business," Bud and Alley's Owner Dave Rauschkolb said.

"I think there is a lot of pressure from some beachfront property owners to get legislative resolution to this issue," Florida Regional Manager of the Surfrider Foundation Holly Parker said. "They don't like what they got from their local government or from the courts and so now they're turning to the legislature to get it preempted."

Now, House Bill 631 and Senate Bill 804 aim to give property owners certain rights, among them the right to restrict access to the beach in front of their property.

"So, right now there are three counties that have customary use ordinances: Volusia, St. Johns, and Walton County, and both versions of this will take away either some or all of those potentially and prohibit any county or any city in the future from utilizing customary use to pass a beach access ordinance," Parker said.

Walton County beaches are the "bread and butter" of this area and many fear if this bill makes its way through the final Senate committee, it will override home rule, taking away local officials' decision making and giving the authority to the state, which some say oversteps of their duties.

"Home rule should be paramount in Florida and really across the nation. That's what America is all about and the fact that we have local governments to decide what is best for us and for years conservatives' mantra has been that, but then to suddenly step in and try to decide for us what is best for our beaches, I think it's wrong," Raushkolb said.

"Local governments have the right to regulate issues that regulate their local community," Parker said, "And local governments in these cases have tried to find ways to protect the rights of the beachgoers so that people can walk along the dry sand beach without fear of being harassed or accused of trespassing."

"They don't live here, they don't understand our situation, and for them to try and make an effort to nullify what our own county commissioners have done is an abomination in my view," Raushkolb added. "The customary use ordinance, I believe, is 15 south of the toe of the dune to the water line, so that leaves plenty of beach for people to enjoy."

"Beaches are the lifeblood of our coastal economy, they're the reason why so many of us live in the state and why most Floridians live in coastal communities, so they can utilize the beaches that are our most abundant and wonderful natural resource. So anything that interferes with the public's long-standing use of the beach is really problematic," Parker stated.

As it stands, the customary use section is just one small section to a much bigger bill titled "Possession of Real Property" that deals with a whole host of property issues that are unrelated to beach access.

"So, it would certainly be our suggestion that if you're going to take up legislation like this that is so important to the entire state, that it should be a stand-alone bill and that it should be very clear of what we are dealing with so that the public has the opportunity and the incentive to participate in this discussion and make sure that the policies they create are good for everybody," Parker said.

We reached out to local lawmakers voting on this issue, but have not heard back as of this publishing.

The Senate Rules Committee will vote on it Thursday.

"I'm sure other states are watching what Florida does. I think we lead in terms of beaches. Our beaches are some of the most beautiful in the world and our issues are not unique. A number of states struggle with beach access. We have rising seas and eroding beaches, the strip of sand we are arguing over is becoming more and more narrow, so these issues will become increasingly common everywhere, so hopefully Florida does not set a negative precedent in terms of beach access," Parker added.

For a look at both bills, refer to the links attached to this article.