By DOTTY NIST
Property rights versus beach rights disagreements have been heating up emotions in line with the rising temperature on local beaches.
This is Mike Adkinson’s third beach season as Walton County sheriff. Adkinson said the season has started off as a contentious one, with a number of disputes between beachfront property owners and beachgoers requiring attention from his deputies.
Adkinson commented that he understands both the homeowners’ desire for respect of their property rights and beachgoers’ desire to enjoy the beach. He noted that it his duty to enforce the law regardless of his personal opinion or philosophy. However, the legal aspect of this issue is complex and far from being clearly defined.
In Walton County, the deeds of some beachfront property owners extend to the gulf or the mean high water line (MHWL) and some do not. Under common law and the Florida Constitution, the part of the beach waterward of the MHWL is considered to be public property and subject to public access. This is also considered to be the case for property below the erosion control line (ECL) located in the same general area as established in conjunction with large-scale beach restoration projects such as the one conducted along a five-mile stretch on the western end of the county.
In addition, Florida courts have held that the public may acquire rights to the use of dry sand areas of privately-owned properties on the beach through several methods, among those customary and traditional use of these beach areas for sunbathing, fishing and other types of recreation. However, it may be argued that it has not been determined legally whether these rights of use apply or may be acquired for all of the state’s beaches, or just some, or in what areas these rights apply or may be acquired.
In recent years, bills have been introduced in the Florida Legislature aimed at addressing and defining the public’s right to recreational use of the state’s beaches. However, the bills have not become law.
Adkinson said he is optimistic that further guidance on the issue will result from decisions in a number of current court cases.
In the meantime, he is guided by a May 2009 agreement between his office, the Office of the State Attorney, and the Walton County Board of County Commissioners, stating that “criminal action for trespass will not be taken” in three areas, including wet sand areas of the beach, areas renourished in large-scale beach restoration projects, and areas south of the mean high tide mark.
“We are not pro-arrest,” Adkinson said. He explained that he does not envision making an arrest for trespass on the beach in the absence of an “egregious” violation such as beachgoers “setting up shop” at the toe of the dune or further north on private property. Deputies would tell the beachgoers to move in such an instance, he said.
He said his personnel strive to resolve beach disputes in a “customer service” fashion. “We want to solve the problem in a noninflammatory manner,” he noted.
Adkinson observed that people in the community have strong positions on both side of the issue, and that there have been attempts by some to win him over to their philosophical viewpoint. Some property owners, he said, have called for beachgoers to be made to move a few feet, off what they consider their private property, or else be arrested. Some beachgoers, on the other hand, have tried to force the issue by “camping out” on the beach and trying to get arrested in order to bring the issue to court.
His viewpoint is that his deputies should not be put in the situation of having to make an arrest in these instances. He encourages beachgoers intent on having their beach use rights affirmed to pursue a civil lawsuit rather than attempt to take the arrest route.
Adkinson said that his office’s response to a demand to have beachgoers move a few feet would be to mediate and endeavor to get the property owner to relent from that demand, unless the beachgoer is clearly too far north on the beach.
How can people wanting to enjoy the beach avoid trouble with property owners? Adkinson advised that if they are setting out their towels and gear in front of a private residence, they can avoid conflict in 90 percent of instances by not sitting too close to the residence and by being “good stewards” of the beach, keeping the area clean and removing all items when they depart.
He encouraged any beachgoers encountering problems with property owners to contact the WCSO at (850) 267-2000. “If there’s an issue, we’ll try to work it out,” he said. He extended the same offer to property owners with complaints about beachgoers.
“We would not want this issue to in any way impact our positive image of Walton County,” Adkinson said.