WALTON COUNTY, Fla. (WJHG/WECP) - When strolling down Walton County beaches, you may be impeded by signs and chains marking private property.
That's because a new law restricting Walton County's right to allow public access to parts of the beach will go into effect July 1st, nullifying the county's recently passed customary use ordinance.
"Under the current law, effective July 1st, if that area, if the owner were to say that I want someone not passing over my property and have the ability to prove it was their property, yes they could prevent someone from walking across their private property. The exception to be that in the surf line," Walton County Sheriff Michael Adkinson explained. "In other words, they own the beach to wherever their survey markers say they are."
As county officials prepare to ride the wave of change, they are drawing a line in the sand.
"Well, I think a couple of things. One, it's obviously a complex issue, it's not nearly as simple as I think both sides would want it to me. We're going to do our best to try and mediate the differences between the public and the property owners," Sheriff Adkinson said. "There are some things that are clear cut under Florida law so, from a Sheriff's Office standpoint, our job again is to try and help diffuse this with little impact to both sides as possible."
County officials said it's up to the owners to mark their property lines.
"If we're in dispute in a matter of a foot or two, we're not going to make a criminal arrest over that. I'm not saying the property owner loses their right but if the dispute is a distance of this far, 'I want you to move here, no you move here,' we're just not going to get into that," Sheriff Adkinson said.
He said deputies will also have GPS capability to help determine boundaries.
"I mean those units are plus or minus about three, give or take about three feet. That's reasonable," the Sheriff said.
Sheriff Adkinson said one of the biggest issues they face is a misunderstanding of what the new law means.
"To give you an example of the level of confusion in this issue, they talk about Walton County beaches as a single entity, well, the reality is two separate things apply there. You have west of Topsail State Preserve, which the beaches there have been renourished so that gives a buffer of dry sand that is open to the public because the public taxes dollars were used to refurbish that or renourish it, it is now open to the public. Public can now sit on the beach. The upland owners still have their property above that, but there is an area for the public. We essentially have no problems west of Topsail," he explained. "East of Topsail Preserve, to the Bay County line have not been renourished now, which means it defaults to the normal property lines. The issue there is we have people who are overwhelmingly in favor of customary use saying we must stop renourishment right now, we're wasting taxpayers' dollars on private property, those people don't seem to understand that if you do that it becomes the public's property. So they are actually advocating for a position they should be for if they understood it."
In the end, he said he hopes everyone can be courteous and understanding.
"One of the problems we hear a lot is well, someone was being a jerk when they did this. I may or may not agree with you about that, however, from a purely legal standpoint, it doesn't matter. They either have the authority or they don't have the authority. That's what we're going to concern ourselves with," Sheriff Adkinson said. "It's 95 percent in favor of opening up the beaches, then there is, but the five percent have the legal standing. Such is life and we have an obligation to protect the rule of law."
Sheriff Adkinson said the issue will be treated as any other trespassing incident and violators could be arrested.
"What we don't want is this to end with an arrest. At the end of the day, that's what we're trying to obviously avoid," the Sheriff expressed. "How would these issues end up as an arrest? So for instance if a property owner or their representative is standing there saying this is my private property and you step for instance across a line or the sand, whatever that may be and you're clearly in a center area that would be in maybe in the center area of where their house would in the dry sand and say 'Well, I'm not moving and I believe in customary use of the sand and I can freely come and go as I want.' You've been warned by the owner, the Deputy Sheriff comes down there and says, 'Clearing this is, in this case, clearly on the private property owners property, you need to leave,' and you say, 'No, I'm not going to leave,' then you leave us with no option at that point, there would need to be an arrest."
In an effort to reduce controversy over how situations are handled, the Sheriff said each south end deputy will be equipped with a new body cam.
"Just please understand and respect that we don't make the law, we are simple bound, duty bound to observe it," he explained.
For more information on HB 631, visit the link attached to this article. Refer to section 10.