The beach is no longer a public asset – especially in Walton County, Florida. In this vacation hot spot, the public now has to jump through the legal system to fight for their right to relax.
On July 1st, House Bill 631 drove a serious wedge between beach-lovers and their sand in Walton County. The bill entitles private property owners with the right to stake their claim to the area of beach stretching from the mean high water mark to their home as their own – meaning they can call the local police department to boot anyone and everyone who dares stake an umbrella in their sand.
It’s easy to understand the legal mindset of HB 631. The ordinance system in place was tedious and expensive, so the municipality demanded a streamlined approach. Private property owners disputed their claim on the sand through an expensive, case-by-case basis that plundered state residents’ tax dollars. The individuals charging into these courtroom battles were sort of like a group of irritated toddlers unwilling to share their favorite toys (or their sandbox).
On the practical side, the repercussions of this decision are pretty hard to fathom and could eventually have national ramifications. While the law does not completely eliminate access to these areas, state officials now patrol public use as requested by private landowners. Couple this with some controversial media of officials approaching tourists (above), and it appears that HB 631 is doing nothing more than giving the face of the Floridian tourism industry an unfavorable makeover.
As if this law didn’t face enough resulting criticism, an icky threat has recently surfaced. In light of this new legislation, private beach owners have ordered that the Tourist Development Council vehicles stay off their property – bidding a farewell to trash collection upon a specified stretch of beaches.
It’s not that these people are a crowd of environment-hating antagonists in the battle for the beach. Rather, they are trying to keep the public from filing for a “customary use” doctrine on the sand behind their house. But when the health of the coast is put at stake, is it really worth it?
Many Walton coastline property owners realize that collecting garbage scattered across the beach is great practice, and it should continue unhindered. Other residents have put their foot down. Some private properties will stand firm against public affiliation, and refuse the trash collection along their home, forcing the TDC to map out areas; otherwise, the TDC will be sued for trespassing.
Perhaps those who signed this bill into reality never stopped to think how it might affect the health of the Florida coast. As red tide wreaks havoc on the southwest coast of Florida, it seems that this debacle on the panhandle is all that the Gulf coast needs to transform into the black sheep of East Coast vacation destinations.
Editor’s Note: Kasey Schmidt is a Florida native.