By DOTTY NIST
Walton County officials are set to consider revisions to the county’s Customary Use Ordinance, which was approved in October 2016 and is scheduled to take effect on the beaches beginning on April 1.
At the outset of the March 14 Walton County Board of County Commissioners (BCC) regular meeting at the South Walton Annex, the commissioners were presented with a report from the Customary Use Ordinance Committee—and voted to set up a public hearing on recommendations contained in that report in conjunction with their March 28 regular meeting.
The Customary Use Ordinance provides for the public “at large” to utilize without interference the dry sand areas of the beach, including those that are privately-owned, for traditional recreational activities—with the exception of a buffer zone to be set aside at a distance of 15 feet seaward of the toe of the dune, or at the same distance from any privately-owned permanent habitable structure on or adjacent to the dry sand areas of the beach, whichever is more seaward.
Recreational activities stated per the existing ordinance to be permitted for members of the public on privately-owned dry sand areas of the beach consist of: “walking; jogging; sitting on the sand, in a beach chair, or on a beach towel or blanket; using a beach umbrella that is ten (10) feet or less in diameter; sunbathing; picnicking; fishing; playing beach games; building sand castles; and similar traditional recreational activities.”
On October 25, 2016, the same date that they had approved the ordinance, the BCC had approved plans for the Customary Use Ordinance Committee, which was envisioned as representing viewpoints of both beachfront property owners and other residents. Committee members had been tasked with formulating suggestions and, if needed, alternatives or changes that could be applied to the ordinance.
Committee members included: David Bailey, Lisa Boushy, Beth Clay, Celeste Cobena, Lisa Evans, Mike Huckabee, Tom McGee, Tami Mims, Brenda Rees, Chuck Schneider, and Mike Sturdivant, along with alternates Richard Harrell and Janet Huckabee. The committee held four meetings, which were open to public attendance and were videotaped for viewing on the Walton County website.
At the March 14 BCC meeting, Tom McGee, Customary Use Ordinance chair, told the commissioners that the committee meetings had been quite long sessions. He conveyed thanks to everyone who had assisted and also to members of the public who attended and furnished their comments at the committee meetings. He expressed appreciation to the commissioners for the opportunity to provide input on this important issue.
Sidney Noyes, assistant county attorney, described the changes recommended by the committee as including a narrowing and some additional prohibitions involving the public’s use of privately-owned dry sand beachfront property, along with some additional recommendations from the committee to “make the beach better.”
She encouraged the commissioners to proceed with a public hearing on the proposed changes in order for any approved revisions to be implemented prior to April 1, the effective date of the Customary Use Ordinance.
As presented to the BCC on March 14, the proposed revisions state that beachfront property owners’ right to use their dry sand property “for any activity not prohibited by federal, state, or local government statute” is “hereby recognized and protected.”
They also list as the “sole uses” permitted for the public on privately-owned dry sand beachfront areas: “traversing the beach; sitting on the beach; sunbathing; fishing, swimming or surfing off the beach; placement of surfing or fishing equipment; and building sand creations.”
The revisions list the following uses of privately-owned dry sand beachfront property by the public as specifically prohibited: “use of tobacco; use of alcohol; use of illegal drugs; possession of fireworks; possession of animals; use of umbrellas; (and) use of tents.”
Included, as well, with the proposed revisions is the statement, “Activities on non-private areas of the beach are governed by the Beach Activities Ordinance.”
The proposed revisions include additional recommendations from the committee that the Customary Use Ordinance and the Beach Activities Ordinance be communicated and publicized to residents and visitors through Walton County Tourist Development Council (TDC) funding, and that the county explore purchasing additional property for public beach access, parking and restrooms, along with working with the state parks and in other “cooperative endeavors” to ensure the public with parking and restroom facilities. They also call for the TDC to put signage in place at public beach accesses bordered by privately-owned beachfront property “clearly stating what is permitted and what is prohibited on private property by the Customary Use Ordinance.”
The BCC meeting that is to include the public hearing on the proposed revisions is scheduled to begin at 9 a.m. on March 28 and is to take place at the Walton County Courthouse in DeFuniak Springs.