By DOTTY NIST
Walton County has set the goal of uncluttered evening beaches, with the stated purpose of preventing interference with beach cleaning, sea turtle nesting, and emergency vehicle access.
The goal is not a new one, but an amendment has been proposed to an existing ordinance, 2003-07, which deals with the “Leave No Trace” program, formerly known as “Remove It or Lose It.”
Proposed revisions have been described as a clarification of the types of items that are to be removed from the beach in the evening. For the first time, provisions are to be added for permits that may be issued, so that some large and heavy items can be left on the beach in the evening under certain conditions.
The program has been in existence since early summer 2007. At its outset the Walton County Sheriff’s Office (WCSO) provided manpower to tag items left on the beach at night in order to notify their owners that they must be removed. Then South Walton Tourist Development (TDC) personnel removed the tagged items once 24 hours had elapsed.
Sgt. Jimmy Fannin of the WCSO Beach Patrol explained that there was no need to tag items at public beach accesses and public dune walkovers maintained by the TDC, since signs at those locations stated that leaving items on the beach was prohibited.
Currently those accesses and the 56 TDC-maintained public dune walkovers are the only areas where the TDC is picking up items left out in the evening.
Fannin said that near the end of summer 2007, WCSO became concerned that the verbiage of the ordinance did not provide sufficient authority for deputies to tag items on beaches adjacent to private property. He said that currently the sheriff’s office is only tagging items in these areas in instances where the items clearly hinder beach maintenance, emergency vehicles or sea turtle reproduction. Fannin said deputies are awaiting the clarification of the ordinance in order to resume tagging of abandoned items on the beach.
While private property lines on the beach vary, with some extending to the mean high water line, Fannin said the procedure will be the same on all beachfront adjacent to private property. Items left in the sandy areas will be tagged, while items placed at the dune line or under private boardwalks will be left alone.
Fannin said that the program is in no way an attempt to take personal items away. Basically, property owners and beachgoers and are just being asked to help keep the beach clear so as not to hinder emergency vehicles, beach cleaning and sea turtle nesting, he explained.
No items are allowed to be left out during evening hours either on the beach or under TDC boardwalks at public accesses and dune walkovers. (The exception will be items for which county permits are issued.)
Tracy Louthain of the TDC agreed that those responsible for implementing the program would “much rather” that people would comply and move their own items in the evening.
“Leave No Trace is all about voluntary compliance,” she said.
She noted that, while this is a county program rather than one initiated by the TDC, the TDC fully supports Leave No Trace.
“People come here for our beautiful, clean beaches,” Louthain commented.
The first of two required public hearings on the proposed amendment to Ordinance 2003-07 took place on June 10. Public comment ranged from strong support to strong disapproval.
There were objections on the part of several beachfront property owners, who invoked property rights concerns. In some cases it was not clear whether the objections were directed at the proposed changes or at the original ordinance.
One homeowner complained that the ordinance had not been “equally enforced” last season. She objected that under the provisions she “would not be able to leave a chair on my own private property.”
Sherry Rayborn of Blue Mountain Beach said she “kind of liked” the Leave No Trace program last year because of the lack of clutter. However, she had a problem with WCSO vehicles driving and on the beach to tag items, leaving tire tracks. She said she would prefer deputies to be on foot.
Rayborn said that by working to eliminate vehicles on the beach, the county would get more support for the program.
Emmett Hildreth, also of Blue Mountain Beach, complained that, by its disregard of beachfront owners’ property rights, the county is making it more difficult to buy, rent or sell property and is impairing tourism.
Beachfront homeowner Leonard Anderson countered that he was “a little tired of hearing” beachfront owners claim exclusive rights to the beach.
Anderson said that although his deed also extends to the mean high water line, his understanding has always been that the beach is public and subject to customary use. Anderson added that Walton County needs clean beaches. “I hope you will do this ordinance,” he concluded.
Representing the Coffeen Nature Center at Four Mile Village, Susan Paladini stated that the center completely supports the ordinance.
She noted that prior to start of the program last year, the beach “looked like an outdoor flea market.”
“Everyone has been quite cooperative,” Paladini added.
Representing Edgewater Beach condomiums on Scenic Gulf Drive, Suzanne Harris also went in record in support of the proposed amendment.
“I think clean beaches are our best asset,” Harris said.
Harris was of the opinion that the proposed amendment had been the result of Edgewater homeowners filing suit against the county to keep their beach volleyball net, which had been tagged for removal. She said the net poles go 10 feet down into the sand, making it impractical to remove and replace the net.
The suit was filed in January 2008 and is pending.
“This was not done to resolve the lawsuit,” countered Mike Burke, county legal counsel, regarding the proposed amendment.
He added that, depending on location, he would suspect that it would be reasonable for the Edgewater Beach volleyball net to be permitted to remain in place under the terms of the ordinance, once revised.
With the proposed revisions, the ordinance would prohibit “items generally used for swimming, sunbathing or beach recreation” (unless permitted) to be left on the beach between one hour after dusk and one hour after sunrise. It is specified that the aforementioned items include but are not limited to beach chairs, umbrellas, tents, hammock, volleyball nets, picnic tables and tiki huts.
These items, if left out during the stated hours, would be deemed abandoned and would become the property of the county to be disposed of “in any manner it sees fit.” Enforcement is to be the duty of WCSO and Walton County Code Enforcement, with TDC personnel picking up the tagged items.
Permits providing for items to stay on the beach during evening hours are to be free of charge and issued by Walton County. It is specified that permits will not be issued for easily removable items, those that would impede emergency and beach maintenance vehicles, or those that would be likely to injure the environment or public health, safety or welfare, according to the discretion of the county administrator or a designee.
Per the proposed amendment, the ordinance would require all items, permitted and unpermitted, to be removed from the beach during any state of emergency due to a hurricane or other weather system.
Penalties for violation of the ordinance would remain the same as prior to the amendment. They provide for issuance of citations and fines ranging from $100 for the first violation to $500 for the third and subsequent violations. Jail terms of up to 60 days may be imposed, as well, upon conviction of third and subsequent violations of the ordinance.
A second public hearing on the proposed amendment is scheduled in conjunction with the Walton County Board of County Commissioners July 8 meeting, which is to begin at 4 p.m. at the South Walton Courthouse Annex. A final decision on the proposal may be made at that time.