New legislative language regarding customary land use give hope to county officials

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WALTON COUNTY, Fla. (WJHG/WECP) - The fight to keep public use of Walton County's beach continues, as an amendment to the bills gives beachgoers and property owners more time to battle over rights.

"It's been a busy year in the Florida legislature and customary use has been one of the hot topics," Walton County Administrator Larry Jones said.

When beachfront property is bought, the owners get full access to the gulf-front views, but they don't have the right to keep the public off the sandy shores on their property.

That customary land use was established in Walton County in 2016.

"There are those who have argued that through the enactment of that ordinance we have taken away right from them as private property owners. It's the contention of Walton County and the Board of County Commissioners that we have absolutely not taken any rights away, they were actually claiming rights that did not come with their bundle rights when they purchased their property, therefore the right to exclude was not a right that they ever had based on the doctrine of customary use," Jones explained.

House and Senate bills making their way through Tallahassee threatened to change that ruling, allowing property owners to restrict use on the beach behind their homes.

"Keep in mind, when we talk about customary use, we're talking about utilization, not necessarily access to it," Jones said. "You take the beach away and a lot of the things that go on in south Walton County don't occur, just plain and simple."

Now an amendment to the bills could give the county a fighting chance to keep the beach open to public use. Under the revised legislation, both sides still have time to fight for their rights.

"The current status is that the Senate version of this bill, Senate Bill 804, was heard in its last committee stop last week and in that committee stop the bill was amended to include the compromise that was reached between Walton County and impacted coastal residents and the state to say that Walton County won't keep their existing ordinance but that they've created a new pathway for them to move forward to get a judicial determination of customary use for the region that the county wants to fight for that for," Florida Regional Manager of the Surfrider Foundation Holly Parker said.

It's a relief to those like Parker who were concerned the Walton County customary land use rules were about to be reversed by the state.

"As the Surfrider Foundation, we fight for the protection and enjoyment of our ocean waves and beaches. If people can't access the beach then they certainly can't enjoy it," Parker pointed out. "There are a lot of repercussions from beach access legislation, ranging from quality of life, living near the coast but not being able to get to it, to economics. This has huge repercussions for local economies, our tourism economy, whether or not people will choose to come and spend their dollars on Florida and at Florida beaches if they feel like they might not be able to access them or walk along the beach without being harassed."

"It's the factor that drives the economy, that puts people to work, that turns the tax dollars that rents the units, that puts people in the restaurants to eat and then shopping centers to shop and turns a tremendous amount of dollars in Walton County," Jones said.

Once both the House bill and Senate bill are reconciled, it will then be up to the Governor to sign, giving Walton County an opportunity to reestablish its customary land use and then it will be up to a judge to decide if they meet the criteria.

"There are a number of aspects to be considered when you're looking to prove a customary use. Primarily those are: has it been ancient, reasonable, without interruption and free from dispute? And I think you'll find those are the terms in the legislation," Jones explained.

"The battle is certainly not over for beach access and if anything this just shows how important beach access is an issue to Floridians," Parker added. "As seas continue to rise, as we have more and more coastal development and pressure put on our beaches and a natural resources, it's increasingly clear that we have to come up with a comprehensive state policy that will ensure that Floridians and visitors have access to the beach in a way that they have had forever."

If the amended legislation passes, Walton County will have to start the process over to reestablish customary use of the beach.