Federal court order upholds Walton's customary land use

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SOUTH WALTON, Fla. (WJHG/WECP) - When it comes to our sandy white shores, who has rights to the beach? Well, according to Walton County and a new federal court order issued last week, the public has customary rights to use the beaches.

Last October, Walton County officials enacted an ordinance which gave the public rights to access all 26 miles of South Walton beaches. That led to a lawsuit by beachfront property owners, who claim that violated their rights and Florida statues.

But according to Chief United States District Judge Casey Rodgers, the ordinance recognizes and protects what the county has found to be a longstanding recreational public use.

"If that means public access to the beach, then I'm all for it. That's the right call. It's an issue of not just equality and fairness, but private land owners have to be a little careful, because what this really is a natural gift from God. The beach is for everyone," 24-year South Walton resident, Thomas Knighten said.

Knighten said coming to the beach is a special place for him to relax.

"If I was denied access to it because a homeowner said no, I own all of that land down to the beach waterfront, you know, I would have a serious problem with that. And I do have a serious problem with that," he said. "We certainly don't want Walton County creating a more divisive issue between he haves and have nots because there is already plenty of that."

Now, thanks to Walton County and a federal court order, his rights as a beach goer are protected from beach front property owners.

"You work your whole life to set yourself up for this kind of lifestyle in South Walton County where we can all enjoy it so much, But its a precious gift, just don't be greedy," he argued. "You don't need the whole beach behind your house, you probably only need about 20 square feet."

Barbara Mahn and her husband Tom, who recently moved to the area agree.

"Then at what point do they stop owning land that we can walk on. I don't think they own the land that we're sitting on right now and I don't think they should," they said. "I think the county is being pretty fair when you purchase a home, you get a plat of survey and that's what you own."

"I get the whole issue about property taxes and I guess there is a feeling of ownership there, you know my house, my land, my property taxes, but you know what, there is property and then there is property. Where do you draw that line," Knighten said. "Why stop at the waterfront? Why not five miles out into the Gulf of Mexico? You see, where do you draw that line?"

Although a judge ruled in favor of the public land use, there are still signs behind many homes, warning people of private property.

"I understand that, you know, they are given a 15 foot easement and I totally respect that between the home and whats safe to build a home and the water," Barbara said, "but to say this is ours and you can't come in is preposterous. You don't own it, you can't say I'm crossing your boundary when you don't actually own that boundary."

Both Knighten and the Mahns believe open public access to beach drives the local economy.

"Lets not kill the golden goose by trying to limit access to those very very people who want to throw, spend a lot of their hard earned money," Knighten said.

"Its a free world," said Barbara, "but you can't guarantee someone that this is your spot of county owned land and only you get to use it. It doesn't work like that."

"I think the judge knew that at the end of the day, the beach belongs to the people, all the people, not just the privileged few," Knighten added.

We did reach out to a couple of beachfront property owners affected by the ruling, but they did not return our calls.

The customary use on privately owned beach areas does prohibit uninvited guests from bringing any pets or tents and tobacco use, and gives the property owner a 15-foot buffer zone from the end of the dunes.