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Beach access dispute causing headaches, lawsuits along Florida’s 30A

If you’ve been vacationing this week on the Florida Panhandle beaches of Walton County, which includes the popular stretch of Highway 30A, you may have had some difficulty renting an umbrella and chairs, or, worse, been shooed off the sand for setting up your towel too close to someone’s beachfront home.

And if you haven’t hit Baton Rougeans’ favorite beach yet this season but are planning to go this summer, be prepared: Walton County is in the throes of a heated battle over beach access that has pitted private property owners against vacationers and the local businesses that cater to them.

“Everybody is concerned about this,” says Dave Rauschkolb, owner of the iconic Seaside eatery Bud and Alley’s and the leader of the grass-roots organization Florida Beaches for All. “Realtors, rental companies, right down to the mom-and-pop stores—everyone is worried about how this will affect our economy, not to mention our quality of life.”

The issue is a Florida state law that went into effect July 1, 2018, blocking local governments from adopting ordinances to allow public entry to private beaches, which, in Florida, extend from the front of a private home all the way to the mean high water line, or where the sand gets wet.

Walton County had such an ordinance in place for years based on the legal principle of “customary use.” But the 2018 law—backed by wealthy homeowners along the pricey 30A—makes it difficult for Walton to continue allowing customary use.

Though the Walton County sheriff hasn’t yet arrested anyone for building a sandcastle on a patch of dry sand in front of someone’s beach home, private property owners have posted signs in an attempt to limit beach access to the public, which in many cases includes vacationers renting homes that may not directly front the beach.

Rauschkolb, whose group is challenging the law in Florida state court, says the issue is not so much a problem for planned communities like WaterColor and Seaside, which own a certain amount of beachfront property—though vendors have not been able to set up as many umbrellas and chairs in front of those resorts as vacationers may be accustomed to.

The bigger problem is in a community like Blue Mountain Beach, which doesn’t have a master-planned resort and has lots of homes on both sides of the beach highway.

“Lots of homes that are not necessarily beachfront are still within a short walk of beach access,” he says. “Now, the people who own those homes—and count on a steady stream of rental income—and the people who rent them don’t have beach access anymore. They have to drive to the public park.”

Though the case is making its way through the Florida courts, it’s not at all clear that the issue will be resolved for the start of the summer tourist season.

In the meantime, Rauschkolb has a word of advice to those planning their annual trip to 30A: “You better ask if the beach access you are renting will be a beach you’re able to get to and will be allowed to sit on.”

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