A settlement agreement has been reached in a nearly five-year legal battle over public use of the beaches of Walton County, Florida. (Floridians for Preservation of Customary Use via Courthouse News).

FL - Florida county avoids costly trial over public access to the beach Courthouse News Service

A settlement agreement reluctantly approved by Walton County commissioners will preserve at least two-thirds of the beach for general access, while some areas will remain private. (CN) — Along a vast majority of Florida’s lengthy coastline, whether it be the Atlantic Ocean or the Gulf of Mexico, the general public is welcome to find a designated parking spot, unload a car full of beach supplies and stake their claim in the sand to spend a day frolicking in or near the surf.

But in one panhandle county, public access rights have been restricted and most beachgoers have been sequestered — by law — to designated public or private beach areas.

In certain stretches along Walton County’s 26-miles of sugar white beach, the general public is corralled into narrow strips of access between private properties, where landowners have been quick to erect “no trespassing” signs and in a few cases, even fences on the beach to deter uninvited guests.

The contentious issue of “customary use” exploded onto the scene there in 2017, when the Walton County Board of County Commissioners passed an ordinanceestablishing the right of the public to use the entire beach, save for a 15-foot buffer from the toe of the sand dunes landward.  

Private property owners fought back, arguing their deeds granted ownership rights of the dry sand to the mean high water mark, which is established by the average tides over a 19-year-period. The issue was further complicated by the state’s beach renourishment efforts, which introduced the concept of an “erosion control line” while also requiring private property owners to grant easements to the state in order for public money to be spent on such projects.

Beachfront property owners in Walton County rejected renourishment requirements and in 2018, successfully lobbied the Florida Legislature to pass a law preventing local governments from establishing customary use ordinances elsewhere around the state. Meanwhile, Walton County doubled down. It filed a lawsuit against 1,194 private property owners in an attempt to encourage the courts to affirm recreational customary use, a case it has since spent several million dollars litigating.

A trial estimated to span eight weeks was scheduled to begin May 22 but on Monday, the Walton County Board of County Commissioners approved a settlement agreement which “may resolve most, if not all, issues between the parties,” according to a motion for continuance filed Friday.

As of Tuesday afternoon, the county has not responded to requests to publicly disclose the settlement agreement, but during brief comments at Monday’s public meeting, Chairman Danny Glidewell said, “Conservatively, I can think of 8 million reasons [the settlement] was the best way to go.”

Interim county attorney Clay Adkinson added the trial would have cost the county between $3 million and $4 million, while the settlement “will secure at least two-thirds of the beach in Walton County for some form of public access going forward.”

District 1 Commissioner William “Boots” McCormick called the settlement a compromise.

“But it forces us into getting the best deal for our citizens and I think we have achieved that,” he said.  

Keith Dean, organizer of a nonprofit organization called Floridians for the Preservation of Customary Use, is a native Floridian who grew up around the beaches of Walton County and said they used to be considered public.

“We've never had this issue here until really the last few years because people move here from other places and they think they own the beach behind their house. Well, they don't. You have to have a deed that goes down to the high water mark, which no one knows what the high water mark is because it's constantly changing," he said.

Dean said he has debated the issue with several lawmakers and found generally they were misinformed or guided by wealthy donors and investors who have money and interest in grabbing valuable land from the public.

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