Judge agrees to continue Walton County beach customary use trial

By DOTTY NIST

A May 15 decision in Walton County Circuit Court has resulted in the trial for Walton County’s customary use of the beach case, which had been set to begin on May 22, being continued for at least three weeks.

This is the case filed by Walton County in 2018 applying to 1,194 privately-owned beachfront parcels, in which the county is seeking to affirm the existence of customary recreational use of the beach.

At a May 15 hearing that had been scheduled for motions related to the case, Walton County Circuit Court Judge David Green, presiding judge, prioritized and heard a recent motion by Walton County requesting continuance of the trial.

Speaking for Walton County, acting county attorney Clay Adkinson discussed the reason for the request, indicating that the county and attorneys for the parties who had intervened in opposition to the county’s court effort had “reached what we believe will be a positive settlement agreement to the vast majority of the case.”

“There’s some time needed to put ink on paper for the sheer number of parties in this, as well as filing certain dismissals,” Adkinson explained as he addressed Judge Green.

Approximately 800 parties have intervened in the lawsuit since its filing in 2018.

Adkinson asked that the court “effectively freeze the case as it sits right now,” and suggested a case management conference on Aug 11 to discuss whether a trial was needed, with updates in the form of notices, documents, and reports to be furnished to the court in the meantime.

Judge Green expressed reluctance about the continuance with the trial date being so close.

In response, Adkinson reported that there would be significant “buy-in” to the settlement agreement.

Asked about the terms of the agreement, Adkinson described a scenario with some public use rights on beachfront parcels while preserving property rights along with “the right to exclude” on the parcels.

“At this point in time,” he said of the agreement, “approximately two-thirds of the beach in Walton County would have public use rights preserved if this were to go through.”

Adkinson also referenced provisions for parties who do not wish to agree to the settlement to “walk away” and be dismissed from the lawsuit under certain conditions. He was confident that the scope of the trial would be greatly reduced with the agreement.

Also speaking about the agreement was Dana Matthews, attorney for a group of intervenors. Matthews said there had been work on the agreement for approximately three months, mostly by himself and Adkinson.

He described the settlement agreement as allowing for intervenors to sign a document to create a “transitory zone” from the water to 20 feet in on their property for public use. Within the zone, members of the general public would “have the right to walk, jog, run, enter the water for swimming, surfing, skimboarding, and also be able to sit on the dry sand, on their beach towels or their own carried beach chairs,” Matthews explained. He mentioned differences recognized in the agreement that would apply to parcels in what has been designated as Zone 1 (the Miramar Beach area) where an Erosion Control Line (ECL) is in place.

Comments from a number of attorneys representing intervenors indicated more support than opposition to the motion for continuance, although it was noted that a number of intervenors favored going to trial over entering into a settlement.

Speaking in favor of the county motion, attorney David Smolker, who represents 55 intervenors. He emphasized that it was estimated that the trial would take eight to 12 weeks, “and there will be an enormous cost savings for our clients if this court is willing to accept the proposed order.”

Valentina Palmer, associate attorney, spoke on behalf of attorney Sandy Sanborn, who had contacted the court in opposition to the motion to continue. Palmer said the firm’s two clients in the case had said they were not interested in signing the settlement agreement and had spent significant funds preparing for the trial. Her concern was that the clients could be called back into court on the matter years or months in the future. Palmer said that an assurance by the county that there would not be an open-ended time frame with the continuance would resolve those concerns.

After hearing all attorney comments, Judge Green granted the continuance on the condition that the attorneys report back to him on May 31 on progress with the settlement agreement. He determined that the trial would begin on June 12 if the matter had not been “substantially resolved.”