SOUTH WALTON, Fla. (WJHG/WECP) - So far, the battle over beach space has been between Walton County and private property owners, but now, one commissioner says it's also between the public and beach vendors.
Finding a space to set up on Walton County's beach is becoming more and more limited as private property owners fight to restrict the public's access to parts of the beach funneling the public into less space along the 26 miles of beach.
At Tuesday's County Commission meeting, District Four Commissioner Sara Comander expressed concerns about how the beach is being managed and said the amount of beach space vendors take up is getting out of control.
She says she has received multiple complaints about how much space beach vendors are taking up.
"I get reports from person after person that the beach vendors are rude, they get down there early and take all the prime spots near the water and the others are forced to sit way back and they're ghost chairs. Whether people aren't in them but yet they are set up, taking up space that someone else can enjoy," Comander said. "Yes, I think it's come to a critical state. We either start doing something or we start losing our tourists."
She says her solution would be to hold a lottery to regulate who is allowed to set up where.
"We have too many vendors for too little beach in my mind and the only way to settle that is to do sort of a lottery system. You may win it this year and you may not get the spot next year but it's bid out. I want them to have somebody on site all the time instead of setting up ghost chairs and walking away so they will be responsible, not only to the people renting the chairs but also the people on the beach," Comander said.
But vendors say they are just supplying the demand.
"Beach vendors are a reflection of the demand that the public has for the industry, so if it feels like there are a lot of beach vendors, beach umbrellas, beach chairs, it's because the public has ordered that chair. They demanded that service," said Chris Webb who was in the beach vendor industry for more than 30 years.
Webb said part of the problem is that vendors are already working with limited space.
"When you look at the regional beach access, half the beach is dedicated to people who would prefer to use beach vending and the other half is dedicated to people who are not. The side of the beach dedicated to people who prefer to rent their chairs is almost always congested. That tells me there is not enough beach access allocated for our homeowners and guests of Walton County who prefer to use a beach vendor as opposed to carrying their own equipment down to the beach," said Webb. "It has an illusion that beach vendors are grabbing all the space but they are grabbing the space for the people of Walton County, the guests of Walton County that want it, that order it, so it's not the vendors that are grabbing the space it's your clients. Your clients are, in effect, your homeowners and guests of Walton County are demanding more space for beach vending."
Both sides agree the battle over customary use is part of the problem.
"I did not mean to indicate that customary use is all about the vendors, but I feel strongly that because of the fighting and forcing people, you know, out of the area they are supposed to be onto what other consider private property, I'm sure that has a link to it," Comander said.
"There is only serious congestion in a few of the smaller walkovers and that's partially due to customary use, where they are forcing everyone that's not on the beach or part of a beachfront community to go to one small area and that's why it looks like the vendors are taking up all that space, but it's really the county funneling people to a small area that the people can only go there," Webb pointed out. "Customary use and vending has been linked together, but the truth is the vendors have never had the right to vend on private property without the property owners permission."
The topic is expected to be discussed more at the September 20 beach vendor meeting at the South Walton Annex Courthouse.
"We need the public's input on this. We need to hear from them. As I've said, I certainly don't want to put anybody out of business, but we have, at this point, it's saturated so they are fighting each other over the spaces and they say they are going to control themselves but they haven't so its time for the county to step in," Comander stated.