By DOTTY NIST
Walton County Sheriff Mike Adkinson recently brought up some ongoing issues that have been taking place at the Sugar Dunes Neighborhood Beach Access, a popular public beach access in the Eastern Lake community.
Speaking to the Walton County Board of County Commissioners (BCC) at its Oct. 24 regular meeting at the South Walton Annex, Adkinson offered to address any questions the commissioners might have about the situation at the beach access.
Containing a dune walkover, the access is located at the south end of Beachside Drive and is maintained by the Walton County Tourism Department, serving hundreds of homes and condominiums in the vicinity.
Sugar Dunes Owners’ Association and CBHIV, L.L.C., are the respective owners of the two adjacent beachfront lots containing the combined 66-foot-wide, north-south strip in which the beach access is located. Associated with the Sugar Dunes Condominium located east of the beach access, the Sugar Dune Owners’ Association is owner of the eastern lot containing 33 feet of the strip on its western boundary. CBHIV is owner of the western lot containing the other 33 feet on its eastern boundary.
Summarizing the situation, Adkinson said, “I think there has been some level of discussion between the property owners as to whether or not the public had the right to traverse to the water. According to our counsel, I think you know that Judge Green has ruled on this that the matter is not in dispute in regard to this, that the public has an extending access to the water.”
In December 2020 the property owners on either side of the boardwalk had filed suit in Walton County Circuit Court against Walton County seeking to have the walkover and public beach access removed.
In May 2022, Walton County Circuit Court Judge David Green ruled that an easement in favor of Walton County for public use applied to the two adjacent 33-foot-wide areas containing the walkover/boardwalk and other beach access elements in place.
Adkinson also brought up property owners’ attempts to limit areas of the beach accessible to the public in the vicinity of the beach access by use of orange cones and signage on the beach. He classified this as a county code issue for Walton County to be addressed as the county government deemed appropriate.
“Where we disagree…with the property owners in this matter,” Adkinson said, “is that there was some interest in putting markers out there in the water, which would be out in the water a period of time; we don’t think that’s appropriate and will not enforce it as such. We believe the water in the wave line is sovereign to the state of Florida; that it is pretty clear from our standpoint.”
While stating that the Walton County Sheriff’s Office (WCSO) would be open to further discussion on the matter, Adkinson continued, “But at the end of the day, we’re not going to destroy the public’s access to the wet sand.”
He also reported that the WCSO was getting a lot of calls about the settlement agreement in Walton County’s customary use lawsuit, which applies to a small number of privately-owned beach properties out of some 900 parcels east of Topsail Hill Preserve State Park. Adkinson distinguished anything applying to the settlement from the part of the beach lying seaward of the wave line, the part of the beach, he noted, that is considered the sovereign property of the state subject to use by the public.
He stated his intention in these matters to follow the rule of law, using a “customer service attitude to the best of my ability to do so.”
Adkinson said the WCSO was awaiting the beach survey that the county would be providing and the plans to develop informational signage for use on the beach, along with an educational public relations campaign for beachgoers.
He explained that, based on the number of calls his office was getting, there was a need to expedite those initiatives. Adkinson offered to help in any way he could and encouraged the BCC to consider use of beach ambassadors to provide beach-related information to the public, whether the ambassadors would be placed under the WCSO or elsewhere.
“But I think,” he concluded, “there’s a true value in having an educational component to the public out there. There is a myriad of questions, and we’re dealing with four…distinctly different situations in regard to beachfront property.”
Clay Adkinson, acting county attorney, indicated that what the BCC could discuss regarding the Sugar Dune beach access property was limited since there was an appeal pending from Judge Green’s 2022 ruling. This is in the First District Court of Appeal, Tallahassee.
Attorney Adkinson also brought up the fact that CBHIV had filed a federal lawsuit “to try to address persons using and setting up on their property.” That lawsuit is pending with the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida in Pensacola.
“But the county’s position,” attorney Adkinson continued, “at this point in time unequivocally for everybody in that area, is there is a 66-foot-wide easement that goes, including the boardwalk, all the way to the wet sand, and then people can traverse east and west. Now should people be setting up within that 66 foot, setting up beach chairs, tents, blocking access? No, they can’t do that.”
“But the owners of either of those parcels,” he told the officials, “burdened by those easements should not be preventing people from traversing the dry sand and going east-west, and we will address obstructions in the form of cones.”
“And,” he said, “otherwise, we’ve reached out to the attorneys who handle those cases, advised them of those issues, and we’re going to look at what we can do to address those, and if we need to take further remedy, we will.”
District 4 Commissioner Donna Johns voiced agreement on what Sheriff Adkinson had discussed regarding beach ambassadors. She recalled that there had been a beach ambassador program operating in Walton County several years ago that had been working very well. “I think we need to relook at that, because it will be helpful,” Johns said. She said she believed the Walton County Tourism Department was also working on a map that would identify areas on the beach where the public “can and cannot go.”
“Also, we’ve looked into the cone issue,” Johns noted.
“I was told today,” said Walton County Administrator Quinn Robertson,”that the cones have not been an issue since this weekend, but we do have concerns that the cones are in the surf and that they could be swept away by the waves.”
While not discussed at the meeting, according to Walton County Code Compliance records, an officer had responded on Oct. 17 to a complaint about cones placed at the water’s edge at Sugar Dunes making public use of the beach between the water’s edge and the high tide line unusable. The officer had found a violation with the cones in connection with the code section prohibiting obstructions and restricting signage on the beach (code section 22-55(a).) The case was closed the same day with the codes apparently having been removed and no further violations observed.
The Walton County Beach Ambassador Program had begun as a volunteer program providing information to beachgoers on beach safety and the requirements of the Walton County Beach Activities Ordinance, including the Leave No Trace Program. It had grown to over 200 volunteers, with the leadership for the program later being brought in under the tourism department.
While still receiving funding through the bed tax, the program was placed under Walton County Code Compliance in spring 2022, after which volunteer participation had dwindled.
Providing an update on the current ambassador program, Robertson reported that two full-time beach ambassadors are currently on staff. “And then we have an influx of seasonal capacity, I think it’s around 20,” he said, “during the summers.”
In response to Sheriff Adkinson’s suggestions about the use of beach ambassadors, county staff was directed by the BCC, at the recommendation of attorney Adkinson, to work to develop the program along the lines discussed and work with the WCSO to ensure that beach ambassador function would not overlap with those of their personnel. Staff is to bring back information from those efforts for consideration at a future BCC meeting.