Beach Access: Private property or open to the public?
The “Beach Access” question has come to dominate community discourse in Walton County, and the outcome of this issue has vast statewide implications. The dispute has arisen primarily over the past 10 years. In 2016, the Board of County Commissioners passed an ordinance enacting a customary use below the toe of the dunes. This ordinance was immediately challenged in civil court by several beachfront property owners. Before the case was resolved the Florida Legislature passed House Bill 631 which among other things invalidated the Walton County existing customary use ordinance (it did however leave in place existing customary use ordinances in Volusia and St Johns counties). The bill prescribes a new way for this issue to be resolved and effectively reset the process. To be frank, very few citizens in Walton County were even aware of this being filed. I only became aware after being asked to comment for a news story. This is a complex issue, and not nearly as cut and dry as both sides would want it to be. On the side of public access there is a plethora of historical data and personal memories advocating that the beach has always been open to the public. The argument in favor of the beachfront owners equally holds merit. As one owner pointed out to me when he asked if “a commissioner would allow people to camp in their backyard because other people had allowed it?; What did I pay for? If the county wanted it they should have bought it,” he said. So we have entrenched and passionate opinions about a very complex issue. Compounding this problem is the prevalence of misinformation. I don’t mean facts that are under review, I mean the deliberate omission of information that is designed to influence public opinion. That’s a sin in my book. I believe that any argument of merit should be able to withstand a thorough critique. It is vital that both sides know all the facts. That means listening and examining what is said, not waiting just to prepare a rebuttal. If someone is engaging in that kind of a one-sided conversation, they are simply arguing and not debating the issue.
I recently held a live question and answer session on Facebook trying to answer specific questions about this. Some peers advised against an open forum on this topic believing that in this case the “messenger” would be stoned. I believe, however, that failing to do so is an abdication of my responsibility and leadership. After our presentation, it was interesting that we had comments stating the Sheriff’s office had clearly been biased toward the property owners, while property owners complained are “obviously for customary use”.
The truth is the Sheriff’s Office position is to follow the rule and spirit of the law to the best of our ability. It’s not a popularity contest open to polling data before we make a decision. We are going to do our best to professionally mediate and diffuse conflict on this issue. We ask that while this issue is being resolved, regardless of your belief, please realize your deputies are simply carrying out their duties. We encourage you to go back and watch either our Facebook Live meeting or our informational video which will provide specific details about what the public can expect. Thank you.