Officials make speaking time decisions for customary use public hearing

A 9 A.M. SEPT. 8 public hearing is on tap for the Walton County Board of County Commissioners to consider a formal notice of intent to affirm the existence of recreational customary use of the beach---and also a new customary use beach ordinance. Meeting location is South Walton High School, and a big crowd is expected. The commissioners recently made decisions regarding speaking time for the hearing. (Photo by Dotty Nist)

By DOTTY NIST

With the Walton County public hearing on customary use of the beach scheduled for 9 a.m. on Sept. 8 at South Walton High School, the county commission recently discussed requests from attorneys representing beachfront property owners for additional time to speak at the hearing.

The requests were discussed at the Aug. 28 Walton County Board of County Commissioners (BCC) meeting at the Walton County Courthouse and led to more general discussion about the upcoming public hearing.

Hundreds are expected to attend the Sept. 8 meeting. The hearing is in line with requirements set forth in HB 631, state legislation that came into effect on July 1, negating Walton County’s existing customary use beach ordinance and specifying steps that can be taken by local governments to affirm a right by the public of recreational customary use of the beach on privately-owned property.

To be considered for adoption at the Sept. 8 public hearing are a formal notice of intent to affirm the existence of recreational customary use—and also a new customary use beach ordinance. If approved, the ordinance would not take effect immediately—but would do so upon a favorable court decision in connection with a legal complaint procedure in Walton County Circuit Court that is the next step outlined by HB 631 for the county to follow in its efforts to affirm customary use.

At the regular meeting, the commissioners were presented with a July 26 letter from Kent Safriet, an attorney representing Walton County property owners. Safriet requested 30 minutes time to address the BCC at the hearing and indicated that, if that request were granted, the “vast majority” of his dozens of clients would not speak. The officials also reviewed an Aug. 17 letter from attorney Dana C. Matthews, who represents Sandestin Investments, L.L.C., and Sandestin Holdings, L.L.C., owners of three beachfront parcels in Sandestin Resort.

In his letter, Matthews indicated that the six attorneys who were planning to speak at the hearing on behalf of their beachfront property owner clients had agreed to request 15 minutes speaking time.

Sidney Noyes, Walton County attorney, commented that the Sept. 8 hearing is to be a legislative rather than quasi-judicial hearing. She suggested giving each of the six attorneys 10 minutes speaking time and limit the time for all attorneys speaking to a total of one hour.

Noyes told the commissioners that the 10-minute allotment was in line with a provision in the BCC’s meeting procedures document that representatives of groups or organizations may be allowed 10 minutes to speak if addressing the BCC on behalf of a group or organization.

“The burden is on us,” Noyes said, continuing, “We need to have all our evidence at our Sept. 8 hearing.” She spoke to the need to allow sufficient time for all the county’s evidence to be presented and for public comments to be heard.

Per BCC policy, comments by members of the public are to be limited to three minutes per person.

Evidence on the part of the county is to include a presentation by attorney David Theriaque, who represents the county on the customary use issue, research by Dr. James J. Miller, former archaeologist for the state, and photos and affidavits provided by members of the public who have customarily used the beach over the years. Over 4,500 affidavits of customary use had been submitted as of Sept. 3.

It is anticipated that there will be a lunch break at the hearing.

In response to Noyes’ proposal regarding the time limits for attorneys, District 4 Commissioner Sara Comander said, “I agree. I like Sidney’s suggestion, because we do need to listen to the public as well.” She moved for approval, and her motion was seconded by District 5 Commissioner Tony Anderson.

Coming forward, attorney Matthews indicated in his remarks that the six attorneys, including himself, represent 50 to 60 property owners. He brought up the possibility of other attorneys being present in the audience at the public hearing and wanting to speak as well. In light of that, Matthews voiced concern about the one-hour time limit that Noyes had recommended and asked how the time would be split up if attorneys in addition to the six signed up to speak asked to address the commissioners.

Attorney Will Dunaway also expressed concern about the one-hour limit and questioned whether the hearing should not be conducted as a quasi-judicial rather than a legislative hearing. He suggested that the BCC do a multi-day hearing to facilitate hearing from the public one day and then wrap up the hearing and make a determination on another day.

Comander responded that she agreed with Noyes that the hearing should not be quasi-judicial, and she was of the opinion that 10 minutes would be sufficient speaking time for each of the six attorneys. She anticipated that the hearing, as already planned, would take at least six hours and probably seven or eight hours.

Noyes suggested that if additional attorneys were present, the BCC could consider at the hearing allowing time for them to speak in addition to the one hour allotted for attorneys.

Noyes’ suggestions were approved in a 4-0 vote as incorporated in Comander’s motion.

Noyes commented on the “wonderful response,” by the public to the county’s request for submittal of evidence and affidavits of customary use, particularly crediting south Walton County resident Jacquee Markel’s efforts.

Noyes also noted that the county would be providing two notaries at the public hearing at South Walton High School to assist members of the public in filing affidavits.

Planning ahead to get to the hearing may be in order for residents of the west end of CR-30A, as CR-30A is to be closed down on Sept. 8 from its western intersection with U.S. 98 to the Blue Mountain Road intersection from 6:30 a.m. to possibly as late as 9:30 a.m. for the Sandestin Triathlon. However, organizers indicated at the Aug. 28 BCC meeting that they anticipated the event being completed and the road being reopened well in advance of 9:30 a.m.