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.