By DOTTY NIST
Florida Beaches for All, a newly-formed nonprofit organization, has set the goal of preserving and perpetuating the doctrine of customary use of the beach in Florida and “all of coastal America,” according to the group’s mission statement.
Led by Walton County residents, business people and property owners, the new organization hosted its first public meeting on Aug. 23 at the O’Donnell Eye Institute office in Santa Rosa Beach, with approximately 80 people in attendance.
Florida Beaches for All officers include: Tonia Shatzel, chairwoman, a retired veterinarian who grew up on Florida beaches and currently resides in Santa Rosa Beach; John Reichenbach, vice-chairman and treasurer, a retired commercial banker and Seagrove resident since 2016; Pete Foley, secretary, president of a business consultancy focusing on communication strategy and business writing and a south Walton County property owner for over 20 years.
The Florida Beaches for All leadership team includes: Grayton Beach attorney and south Walton County resident Daniel Uhlfelder; and Santa Rosa Beach resident Rob Wood, an entrepreneur, author, artist and speaker with a variety of experience in the field of business.
Organization board members include: Liz McMaster, a realtor specializing in gulf-front properties and president of the Emerald Coast Association of Realtors; and Dave Rauschkolb, a resident of south Walton County for over 30 years and owner of three restaurants in Seaside.
The formation of the organization comes in the midst of Walton County’s efforts to affirm a right by the public to customary recreational use of the beach. This is in the wake of HB 631, new state legislation that negated the county’s customary use ordinance as of July 1.
The county is following steps set forth in the legislation to reaffirm customary use on the beaches, with those steps to include the Walton County Board of County Commissioners (BCC) considering the adoption of a notice of intent and a new customary use ordinance at a 9 a.m. Sept. 8 public hearing at South Walton High School. A court complaint process will also be required.
Introduced at the Aug. 23 meeting by Keith Dean, CEO for the Emerald Coast Association of Realtors, Florida Beaches for All President Tonia Shatzel commented that customary use is not a partisan issue but, “an issue of right or wrong.”
Much of the discussion at the meeting focused on quiet title court actions pursued by many property owners, actions that have resulted in lots being deeded to the mean high water line that previously did not extend that far south, followed by owners of some of these lots putting up “private beach” or “no trespassing” signs and attempting to exclude the public from the beachfront areas in question.
Attorney Uhlfelder spoke about the Blessey v. Walton County lawsuit, which was filed in June by a Walton County beachfront property owner who is seeking to have the doctrine of customary use deemed unconstitutional.
“We are ground zero…for legally privatizing these beaches,” Uhlfelder warned the gathering. It was his opinion that the privatization effort by beachfront property owners was “all about money.”
Uhlfelder called HB 631 a “bad law,” but observed that the legislation could have been even worse, since some legislators’ intent had been to do away with the doctrine of customary use in Florida altogether.
He countered contention that Florida Governor Rick Scott’s July 12 executive order had restored the public’s rights to use of the beach as they had existed prior to July 1, saying that he knew from personal experience that that was not the case. (Uhlfelder had gone to the beach at Vizcaya in the Dune Allen area with a copy of the executive order in hand and had still been approached by law enforcement and told he could not sit in the dry sand area of the beach.)
“Our group is committed to taking this to the end,” Uhlfelder told attendees, adding that the organization members agree, “that customary use has to stay in place.”
“There is nothing more important than customary use;” he said, “the beaches are for everybody, and everybody knows that.”
Leadership Team member Rob Wood commented that Florida Beaches for All had been authorized by the state eight days ago as a 501(c)(4) organization. “We need help,” he told attendees, saying that anyone with talents and skills that could help the organization was welcomed to get involved.
Donations are being taken, as well, to fund lobbyists and legal representation, Wood also indicated.
Attendees were encouraged, as well, to file a notarized affidavit of their customary use of the beach in Walton County. Affidavits are to be used by the county in legal efforts to affirm customary use. Information on affidavits and other evidence that may be submitted is available on the Walton County website, www.co.walton.fl.us. Many local businesses are also providing affidavit forms and notaries free of charge, plus delivery of completed forms to the county, as a service to the public.
Information on Florida Beaches for All is available online at www.floridabeachesforall.org and on the organization’s Facebook page.