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


By TOM McLAUGHLIN 

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.

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