New Non-profit...

On the morning of July 14, longtime Walton County, Florida resident Daniel Uhlfelder decided to go to the beach.

Instead of rest and relaxation, he found himself in the middle of a confusing debate about public versus private property...

New non-profit formed...

Florida Beaches for All, a newly-formed nonprofit organization, has set the goal of preserving and perpetuating the doctrine of customary use of the beach in Florida and “all of coastal America,” according to the group’s mission statement...

Time to make a stand in the sand...

"All the beaches of South Walton and Florida have been uninterrupted in their human use for many centuries. A doctrine of “Customary Use” gives all of us reasonable access and enjoyment on private and public beaches."

Walton County to Hold Public Hearing on Customary Use

Article courtesy of WUWF 88.1

Article courtesy of WUWF 88.1


Customary Use is a big issue in the state of Florida.

It’s the belief that beaches have been public property as long as humans have used them, which is why counties across Florida have passed customary use ordinances allowing access to both public access points and in front of beachfront homes. 

In April 2018, the Florida Legislature passed House Bill 631. The bill, which received bipartisan support, authorizes a person with “superior right to possession or real property” and “prohibits local government from enacting or enforcing ordinance or rule based on customary use.”

The Walton County Board of Commissioners is moving forward to restore public beach access along the South Walton beaches under new provisions of the House bill.

On September 8 at 9 a.m., commissioners will hold a public hearing at the South Walton High School auditorium to “affirm the existence of recreational customary uses on beachfront property in Walton County.”

Public Information Officer for Walton County Louis Svehla said the hearing is the first step toward a customary use ordinance.

"Based on the legislation passed this year by the state of Florida, House Bill 631, it requires that we hold a public meeting regarding our intent to move forward with the customary use ordinance," he said.

A draft of the ordinance will be presented at the hearing, Svehla said.

"That would be the ordinance that would be presented along with all of the other information to a judge who would ultimately then decide whether customary use could exist in the forum that we’re trying to have."

In 2016, Walton County Commissioners passed a customary use ordinance giving the public the right to enjoy privately-owned beaches without fear of prosecution.

"We had issues with property owners putting up fences and signs and chaining off and roping off their private property which was an environmental issue as well," Svehla said. "And that really led the board to look at our beaches, how they’ve been used customarily; what they felt was right for this area." 


A sign on a South Walton Beach alerts people of private property lines.CREDIT DANIEL UHLFELDER

A sign on a South Walton Beach alerts people of private property lines.CREDIT DANIEL UHLFELDER


On July 1 of this year, HB 631 went into effect voiding the 2017 customary use ordinance and causing issues for both residents and visitors.

"We’ve had several property owners say they do not want us crossing their property in order to pick up trash that we would normally pick up on private property throughout our beach," Svehla said. "That has caused us to have to stop picking up trash in certain areas. We’ve got about 70 percent of our private property now that we’re unable to collect trash from because we are unable to traverse certain areas of the beach."

Another issue is, of course, the confusion of which beaches are public or private.  

"Certainly visitors coming in, even residents, who have been going to places they’ve been used to going to and being told by homeowners that they’re going to have to move — that it’s private property," Svehla said.

Svehla said the proposed customary use ordinance will be similar to the one passed in 2017.

"We don’t anticipate it to be much different," he added. "Really, this is the process we have to go through based on the legislation. So the board will look at a draft ... and if they would like to make any changes or see something different in an ordinance."

And again, the Florida Legislature could pass another bill.

"The State legislature could certainly pass something different," Svehla said. 

Svehla said the county is planning on a large crowd for the public hearing, which is why he advises anyone interested in going to arrive as early as possible. The public will be given the chance to speak at the hearing.

New Florida Law Makes Some Beaches Off-Limits To Public, Sparking Standoff

August 15, 2018  |  By Greg Allen, NPR

In Florida, a new law has stirred up a battle over one of the state’s most precious resources: its beaches. As of July 1, homeowners with beachfront property on a section of Florida's panhandle can declare their beach private and off-limits to the public.

NPR's Greg Allen (@gallennpr) reports on the standoff that's been sparked between wealthy homeowners and other local residents.

This segment aired on August 15, 2018.


Walton County set to do battle for customary use

Photo courtesy of the Walton Sun

Photo courtesy of the Walton Sun

The Walton County Commission is prepared to embark upon a long and probably expensive mission to return large swaths of coastline to the public by proving that people have been enjoying the beaches of South Walton for a very long time.

Commissioners have established Saturday, Sept. 8 as the day they will hold a public hearing at which they are scheduled to give notice of their intent “to affirm the existence of recreational customary uses on beachfront property in Walton County, Florida.”

The 9 a.m. meeting will be held at South Walton High School on Greenway Trail in Santa Rosa Beach.

Commissioners voted at their last regular meeting to change the day and location of the meeting in order to accommodate what they anticipate will be a very large crowd.

“It could certainly be in the hundreds,” county spokesman Louis Svehla said.

In 2016, Walton County voted to create a Customary Use Ordinance that gave the public access to areas many coastal private property owners claimed to be their own, and held deeds to that bolstered their arguments.

This year HB 631 effectively restored the private property rights of the owners and voided Walton County’s ordinance. Since the bill went into effect July 1, some owners have posted no trespassing signs and called upon the county to end its practice of using vehicles to perform tasks like garbage collection on the beach.

Deputies have been called upon to mediate frequent disputes between property owners and beachgoers, many of whom claim customary use as their right.

HB 631 provides a mechanism for Walton County, and other Florida counties, to prove customary use legally and have a judge rule that beaches should be open to everyone. The first step in the process is the public hearing that will be held Saturday.

At the meeting, the bill says, the governing board must:

  • Adopt a formal notice of intent to affirm the existence of a recreational customary use on private property.

  • Specifically identify the specific parcels of property, or the specific portions thereof, upon which a customary use affirmation is sought.

  • Provide the detailed, specific, and individual use or uses of the parcels of property to which a customary use affirmation is sought.

  • Produce each source of evidence that the governmental entity would rely upon to prove a recreational customary use has been ancient, reasonable, without interruption, and free from dispute.


Walton County attorney Sidney Noyes will be leading the meeting, Svehla said.

The public hearing must be held before the county can take its argument for recreational customary use before a judge. The judge is under no obligation to rule on behalf of the county.

The majority of Walton County Commissioners have declared their intent to fight for the customary use rights of their constituents.

“I have enjoyed our beaches since moving here in 1967. I have watched many families including my own grow up on these beaches. It is horrendous to think that outside forces as well as some locals are trying to make a systematic change to our quality of life by working to restrict the public’s access to what truly are the world’s most beautiful beaches,” Commissioner Sara Comander said in a recently published statement.

“We need to act quickly and to act now before a significant negative economic impact is felt taking away our quality of life and the jobs and future of our children,” Comander, who is leaving office this year, said.

Commissioner Melanie Nipper has thus far been alone on the five-member board in saying she’d like to search for terms of compromise between beach goers and the coastal property owners before the county takes action that will surely result in expensive litigation.

“Both sides of this ‘battle’ are at a very critical and (soon to be) expensive point and we may be in the middle, having to pay and pay dearly, to defend a decision that will ultimately be decided in a higher court system,” Nipper told Noyes and County Administrator Larry Jones in a recent email.

Nipper suggested the county take the advice of Bill Fletcher, a resident currently running to fill Comander’s seat.

Fletcher had requested commissioners “consider getting both sides of this issue to place litigation on hold for six months while we try to reach an acceptable agreement” to problems exacerbated by passage of HB 631.

“I have to believe rational people can sit down and reach an agreement, if each side is willing to reasonable compromise,” Fletcher said. “We are looking at years and millions of dollars being spent and I suggest we give it one more shot at avoiding litigation and turmoil.”


Why Destin’s beaches are almost entirely private, and whether it’s supposed to be that way

By Annie Blanks, article and images courtesy of the Walton Sun

DESTIN — Yao Lo, a tourist from Atlanta, walked out to the Shirah Street public beach access at 6 a.m. one recent morning to stake out a spot for his 15 family members.

Lo said he was paying $6,000 to rent a house for the week just one block from the beach, but was dismayed to learn on his first day of vacation that there was little to no beach for his family to enjoy. Ropes on either side of the Shirah beach access near his house designated nearly all the beach behind the ropes as “private.” Between the ropes, the access was only about 60 feet wide.

He said he was forced to come to the small sliver of beach access before sunrise every morning to reserve a spot for his family before people were “packed like sardines” in the one small section of public beach.

“You’re down here for the summer paying six grand a week and you learn there’s no space for you to bring your kids to the beach?” he asked as he screwed an umbrella into the sand. “I think we’re going to choose another place to vacation next year.”

Lo’s dilemma is one of many faced by tourists who visited Destin this summer only to learn that the vast majority of the city’s six miles of beach are private, marked off with ropes and no trespassing signs, and guarded closely by territorial beach chair vendors.

What’s more, large swaths of Destin’s beaches that should be open to the public due to past restoration projects funded by county and state money, have been unlawfully marked as “private beach” for years — and confusion on the part of city and Okaloosa County officials, as well as law enforcement, has created a culture of apathy that has further muddled the issue.

In a two-part Daily News series, running in the Aug. 5 and Aug. 12 Sunday editions, we look at how Destin’s beaches have come into increasingly high demand over the past two decades, how and why the public’s access to the beach has increasingly dwindled, and what — if anything — can be done to restore the public’s right to access the beaches.

Shrinking public beach accesses

Okaloosa County’s beaches are heavily marketed by the Tourism Development Department as sand that’s “shockingly fine” and “so clean that it squeaks underfoot.” The water, the TDD’s website says, are a “brilliant emerald-green” color that “provides such a contrast with the blue sky and the white sand below.”

What’s more, the TDD’s website says, is that “the most amazing thing about our beaches is that the very best belong to you, the beach-loving public.”

But more and more tourists who visit the Emerald Coast, especially Destin, are learning that’s not entirely true.



Document: Walton was singled out by HB 631 for customary use

Photo courtesy of North West Florida Daily News

Photo courtesy of North West Florida Daily News


A South Florida Democrat did much of the heavy lifting to guide HB 631 through a Florida Legislature dominated by Republicans.

But state Rep. Katie Edwards-Walpole, D-98th, had input from a law firm that now represents Walton County beach property owners. Attorneys at Hopping Green and Sams helped influence Edwards-Walpole’s decision to amend HB 631 so that only Walton County would feel its impact.

And the impact has been profound.

After July 1, when HB 631 went into effect, coastal property owners in Walton County began posting no trespassing signs and taking action to keep almost everyone, including county tourist development employees, off of the dry sand portions of beach to which they hold deeds.

Proponents of customary use, the theory that beaches have been public property for as long as humans have utilized them, have taken offense at the private owners’ actions and are loudly disputing their claims that some portions of the beach are off-limits. Some have even begun testing the private owners’ assertions that they have the right to remove trespassers.

Confrontations are occurring nearly daily between beachgoers and private property owners. Local law enforcement, faced with a quandary over enforcement of trespassing regulations, is often summoned to mediate beach front disputes.

Walton County is alone among 67 Florida counties facing the controversy created by HB 631.

Records show that sometime between November of 2017 and Jan. 11, 2018, HB 631 was amended to exclude Volusia and St. Johns counties — the only two Florida counties other than Walton to have established customary use ordinances — from the bill’s provisions.

While Walton County’s customary use ordinance was shredded by the bill when Gov. Rick Scott signed it into law, Volusia and St. Johns ordinances were allowed to stand, seemingly simply because they were adopted before Jan. 1, 2016.

On Jan. 9, an email was sent from attorney Gary Hunter at Hopping Green and Sams to Edwards-Walpole at the firm of Saul Ewing Arnstein and Lehr, her place of business in Fort Lauderdale.

In the email Hunter states that he and “the lawyers litigating the Walton County case” feared that incorporating Volusia and St. Johns counties into HB 631 would spur more Walton County lawsuits.