Walton County, Florida works to expand beach accesses
SANTA ROSA BEACH — The Walton County Commission and its Tourist Development Council continue their aggressive push to provide access to public beaches.
Following a lengthy public workshop, commissioners voted at their meeting Tuesday to create a neighborhood beach access on Headland Street in the Sea Highlands subdivision by constructing a boardwalk and dune walkover and installing bike racks and a rinse shower.
Commissioners also instructed TDC Beach Operations Director Brian Kellenberger to revise design plans for a regional beach access at Walton Dunes near Beach Front Trail in Santa Rosa Beach.
The new design, which the TDC was given 60 days to produce, is to “incorporate ideas from the community” to enhance safety near the proposed access, TDC spokesman David Demarest said.
One of the most often mentioned concerns residents in the Walton Dunes area have had is congestion created by bikers, pedestrians, golf carts, motor vehicles and construction equipment on a road with 90 degree turns and insufficient pedestrian walkways. A primary goal of the redesign will be “providing an option with fewer parking spaces” at the access, Demarest said.
Walton County Commissioners are working to build more public beach accesses. [FILE PHOTO/DAILY NEWS]
Several people who spoke against the Walton Dunes access said safety was among their chief concerns.
“We’ve got to have a safe way for people to get down to the beach,” Commissioner Bill Chapman said before the vote for the redesign. “Come back with something that is not overly impacting the neighborhood.”
Both beach access plans considered Tuesday had been before the County Commission previously and had been tabled or set aside for one reason or another.
That this year both items seem to have found favor, if not unanimous support, with the community seems to have a lot to do with the passage of House Bill 631 and the ongoing turmoil in Walton County surrounding customary use of the beach.
A county ordinance declaring customary use — that the beaches belong to everyone — was overturned by HB 631 in 2017. That spurred many private beach owners — nearly 65 percent of Walton beaches are privately owned — to put up no trespassing signs or erect fences to prevent beachgoers from crossing their property.
“It’s a new day since we talked about this project in 2016. Life has completely changed,” Lori Reichenbach told commissioners at the workshop. “We are in the battle of our lives with the cessation of customary use.”
Reichenbach, who previously lived in the Walton Dunes area, said she opposed the beach access when commissioners considered it in 2016.
“We need to think about all of our residents now that we cannot sit anywhere we want to sit. Whether they live one block or one road or one mile off the beach, or north of the bay or north of DeFuniak Springs,” she said. “We have to make sure more citizens of Walton County will have at least one more option to come to the beach.”
The Headland neighborhood beach access will be one of a handful in the area. All open onto one of two swaths of public beach that each extend about 1,400 feet, or nearly a half mile when taken together.
John Harlow, a homeowners association member who spoke in favor of the Headland access, said its construction would remove pressure from “over utilized” areas of the existing beach and give beachgoers a quick route to an “under-used” portion of public property.
The one person who spoke against the Headland access questioned the need for it.
“It keeps coming up like a bad penny,” he said. “There’s never been a need for this in 70 years.”
The Montgomery Street, Seagrove Beach resident claimed the County Commission and TDC have fallen victim to “a lot of rhetoric” that includes “aspersions being cast at mean greedy beachfront owners.”
“I’m an opponent of this and think it is amazing and crazy ya’ll have to consider it a fourth time,” the man said. “They want to make Montgomery Street a Regional Beach Access.”