Gulf of Mexico
Northwest Florida Daily News

Florida: Simmering hostilities greet tourists in South Walton

It is telling that the two sides in Walton County’s bitter battle over its beaches don’t even agree about what it was last year that blew apart decades of harmonious relations along one of Florida’s most beautiful coastlines.

The dispute has evolved to the point in which it now pits the Walton County Commission against more than 600 beach property owners in an all-or-nothing legal fight that will decide whether or not 26 miles of county beach are considered open and accessible to the public.

“There’s going to be a profound winner and a profound loser,” said attorney David Pleat, who represents some 60 property owners.

Caught in the middle and certain to be affected, as they were last year when House Bill 631 took effect and no trespassing signs began to appear on Walton County beaches, are the 4 million visitors the county expects to host this tourist season.

The Walton County Commission favors opening the county’s beaches to public access. Commissioners blame the situation they now finds themselves in on last year’s passage of HB 631, a law that wiped out a local customary use ordinance adopted in 2017.

The new law took effect July 1 of last year, and some property owners drew literal lines in the sand to keep people off beaches they claimed as their own. Beachgoers, both residents and visitors, took offense, and sheriff’s deputies spent the summer mediating trespass disputes.

On the other side of the issue, the property owners blame the local ordinance struck down by HB 631, the county’s attempt to legalize customary use — the theory that beaches should be open to everyone because mankind has walked them since time immemorial.

Private property rights are sacred, the homeowners argue, and the ordinance sought to take their land without even offering recompense.

“No other county has ever attempted a land theft the way the Board of County Commissioners did,” South Walton beach property owner Mike Huckabee told County Commission candidate Danny Glidewell in an email last July.

As a result of the standoff between the property owners and the county, some visitors will again encounter “private property” and “no trespassing” signs to their left and/or right the instant they step off a public beach access and onto the sand. They’ll be obliged to walk in some cases on wet sand to get to a place where they won’t be accosted when they find a place to sit.

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Walton County Sheriff Mike Adkinson said his deputies already are being called out to coastal properties to settle disputes between owners and beachgoers over who has the right to be where. In many of this year’s cases, it’s the same owners that last year griped loudly about private property rights and the same customary use advocates testing the resolve of deputies who have been instructed not to arrest beachgoers for trespassing, he said.

“Essentially, it’s the same this year as last, and it puts us in a terribly untenable situation. We want to protect the rights of the property owners and the beachgoers as well,” Adkinson said.

“For the people who think this is a license to do whatever they want, they’re wrong, and you can’t build an iron fence down to the water, either,” Adkinson said. “I don’t want Walton County to be portrayed negatively because of the actions of a few people.”

The battle over customary use has also affected beach services in Walton County.

Brian Kellenberger, the director of beach operations for the county’s Tourist Development Council, said keeping up with the garbage generated by beachgoers will be one of his agency’s biggest challenges when the county becomes inundated with visitors.