Walkway to the beach shut down at Van Ness Butler beach access, parking lot remains open

THE PATH and walkway to the beach at the former Van Ness Butler, Jr., Regional Beach Access have been closed down by the Watercolor Community Association, Inc., which now has the beach easement under its private ownership. A sign on a gate across the beach easement reads, “CLOSED FOR MAINTENANCE.”. (Photo credit: Joe Burton)

By DOTTY NIST

The beach access easement to the Van Ness Butler, Jr., Regional Beach Access has been abandoned by Walton County, is now the private property of the Watercolor Community Association, Inc., and has been shut down by the association.

The large parking lot for the facility located on the north side of CR-30A remains Walton County property. The parking area is open to the public for the near future and possibly longer.

The Walton County Board of County Commissioners (BCC) discussed the parking lot during the course of the March 26 regular BCC meeting at the South Walton Annex. A number of options were explored, and Walton County Administrator Stan Sunday was directed to bring back more information at a future meeting.

This was in the wake of Walton County having recorded an abandonment of the beach access easement two weeks earlier. Also abandoned by Walton County were other related easements that had previously been agreed to decades earlier by the St. Joe Company, developer of the Watercolor beach subdivision, for use of the public.

The abandonment had been one of the terms of a settlement agreement in connection with a lawsuit filed in 2022 by the Watercolor Community  Association against Walton County.

Located immediately west of Seaside along CR-30A, the Van Ness Butler, Jr., Regional Beach Access had been open and in use by the public since February 2008, featuring a path and dune walkover on the south side and on the north side restrooms and the 100-space landscaped parking lot with four ADA spaces. The facility has been maintained over the years by the Walton County Tourist Development Council (TDC) staff, currently known as the Walton County Tourism Division.

The access was named for Grayton Beach pioneer Van Ness Butler, Jr., who served as county commissioner for the beach area in Walton County when Walton County obtained the beach access easement and parking lot property. Butler died in 2014.

History of the easements

Before the Watercolor subdivision was developed on approximately 500 acres west of Seaside, there was a road under the ownership of Walton County running along the beach south of CR-30A, extending from 1,337 feet away from the western boundary of Seaside westward to the Grayton Beach State Park boundary. The road had previously been under state ownership and had been transferred to Walton County. It had been a popular place for local residents to park and go to the beach.

In 1997, the St. Joe Company, then known as the St Joe Paper Company, had requested that the county abandon the road, and the BCC had held a public hearing to consider abandonment of the two-acre road property.

According to minutes from the July 22, 1997, BCC meeting, “ Dave Tillis, representing St. Joe Paper Company, appeared before the Board to request the abandonment of the old roadbed between Seaside and Grayton south of C30A. In return, St. Joe Paper Company will develop a parking area and beach access on the north side of C30A to be turned over to the TDC for maintenance.”

As reflected by those minutes, the BCC approved the road abandonment unanimously.

In August 1997, an agreement between St. Joe and Walton County was recorded. Observing that the abandoned road had been used for “parking for beach access across private property,” the agreement provided for St. Joe Company to furnish two acres of land for parking in exchange for the abandoned right-of-way and for St. Joe to provide a 20-foot-wide easement to the beach with connection to the parking area for construction of a boardwalk by the TDC, with $15,000 to be paid by St. Joe toward that construction.

An April 16, 2002, easement agreement between Walton County and St. Joe followed, granting easements across some St. Joe parcels for the beach access easement and what was termed the “Beach Easement Parcel.”

Along with the beach access easement serving as an appurtenance to the public parking area, the agreement stated that the easements were to furnish “to the County, its citizens, employees, guess, invitees, and licensees, a way of passage, on or by foot only, over and upon,” the parcels.

The agreement provided for the county to construct a dune walk-over on the 20-foot-wide beach access easement. (A walk-over was constructed there in 2008.)

The agreement allowed for both the beach access easement and the foot passage easement, the latter being 75 feet in width running parallel with the shoreline, to continue in effect as long as used for the purpose set forth in the agreement. It also provided for the termination of the easements, and for those to revert to the St Joe Company in the event of the county using or attempting to use the easements for any purpose not specified in the agreement.

The use specifications and reverter language had not been present in the August 1997 agreement, and the latter would come into play later.

The 75-foot-wide easement for public pedestrian access was consistent with the terms of the December 1995 Consent Final Judgment that set St. Joe’s land use/land development rights and conditions for development of company property in Walton County , including the portion that would later be developed as Watercolor. The pedestrian access was also stated in the consent final judgment as “being construed to meet” county requirement for native vegetation and habitat protection and providing of open space.

St. Joe’s December 1999 development order for the property now known as Watercolor contained beach access requirements, as well, including the recording of the 75-foot-wide easement for pedestrian access and a prohibition on restricting public access within the 20-foot-wide beach access easement granted to the county.

THE PARKING AREA at the former Van Ness Butler, Jr., Regional Beach Access remains county property and is still being heavily used by the public. (Photo credit: Walton County Administration)

The lawsuit

The Watercolor Community Association sued Walton County in March 2022 over four beachfront parcels which, according to the lawsuit, had been acquired by the association from the St. Joe Company.

The association identified itself as successor to the St. Joe Company with the easement agreement identified the four parcels as included in and subject to the easement agreement

They were seeking a declaration that county easements on their beachfront property, including the one in use for the Van Ness Butler. Jr., Regional Beach Access, were “abandoned and void”—-and that Watercolor was entitled to terminate the easements.

Watercolor made the argument that Walton County’s actions had represented a use of the easements for purposes not specified in the easement agreement. Cited was Walton County’s customary use ordinance in effect from April 1, 2017 until negated by stated law July 1, 2018. 

The ordinance had provided for customary use of the dry sand area of all beaches along the coastline for specified traditional recreational purposes. Cited, as well, in Watercolor’s lawsuit was Walton County’s effort, ongoing at the time, to affirm customary use along the coastline as a whole with its Complaint for Declaration of Recreational Customary Use in Walton County Circuit Court.

Watercolor maintained that, as with the ordinance, Walton County was seeking with the court complaint to affirm “improper uses” of the easements other than passage, among those sitting on the sand, sunbathing, picnicking, building sand castles, and other activities.

Watercolor referenced the A Flock of Seagirls, L.L.C., v. Walton County lawsuit, which had applied to two privately-owned lots in the Watercolor subdivision containing the 75-foot-wide easement.

On an appeal of the case, in 2021 the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit had found in favor of arguments similar to those of Watercolor, ruling that Walton County’s customary use ordinance had triggered the terms of the easement’s abandonment clause. The case had been remanded/returned to the United States District Court, Northern District of Florida, with that court deeming the county’s access easement on the two properties as “abandoned and void.”

Watercolor had concluded its filing by asking that the court also declare “abandoned and void” the county easements on the parcels that were the subject of the lawsuit, both the 75-foot-wide parallel easements and the 20-foot side beach access easement, based on the county’s actions—and that the court declare “that Walton County had no easement, right of access or use,” over any part of the four parcels, with the exception of a utility easement on the easternmost parcel.

In May 2023, the Walton County Board of County Commissioner had voted to have legal counsel execute dismissals from the customary use complaint case “with prejudice” for parcels in the WaterColor subdivision that were “similarly situated” to the property that had been involved in the federal A Flock of Seagirls lawsuit, with each party responsible for their own legal fees and costs. This had included the parcels containing the easements that Watercolor was seeking to have declared abandoned and void.

In a Jan. 10, 2024 filing in the Watercolor Community Association, Inc., v. Walton County case, Walton County acknowledged that the dismissal of the parcels by the county from the customary use case “removes the basis for claim of actual use of the parcels, or a future attempted use.”

The settlement

On Feb. 27, 2024, the BCC unanimously approved a motion providing for a settlement with Watercolor to resolve the case, including dismissal of the lawsuit by both parties, with each party bearing its own fees and costs.

In addition, with the recommended motion, the BCC consented to record abandonments of the remaining north-south easements on the subject property, to include the initial 20-foot-wide strip for the beach access and an additional easement accommodating the existing switchback ramp for the dune walkover, with the county to leave the existing boardwalk and dune walkover in place and the association to pay Walton County $7,500.

Per the motion, the settlement was to include all permits for the boardwalk and dune walkover being transferred into the name of the association, the association being responsible for those permits in the future, and execution of a standard-form indemnity for the benefit of, and protecting the county against claims, consistent with slip and fall claims related to improper construction or otherwise that might arise from the continued use of the boardwalk after the hand-over date to the association, with that to be subject to the sovereign immunity limitations that would otherwise apply.

A settlement agreement to that effect was signed two weeks later, along with the recording of an abandonment of the easements.

Future of the parking area

Near the outset of the March 26, 2024, BCC meeting, Walton County resident Margo Yourick came forward with comments about the Van Ness Butler, Jr., Regional Beach Access and in tribute to its namesake who had served as county commissioner from 1997 to 2000 and had been a hospitality industry leader.

Calling Butler a visionary, Yourick said he loved Walton County and would be appalled at the privatization of Walton County’s beaches.

She called it a “sad day for Walton County” that the access had been closed after 16 years of public use.

Walton County Commission Chairman Tony Anderson thanked Yourick for her remarks honoring Butler, adding, “may I say that we didn’t close that beach, the courts closed that beach.”

“We lost the court case, and we’re just as much upset about it as you are,” Anderson said.

Since the closing of the beach access, the parking area had continued to be heavily used, including for parking for Seaside and Watercolor.

A number of options were discussed at the meeting for the parking lot/restroom property, as the county retains the deed to the property.

Walton County Administrator Stan Sunday reported that there had been offers for purchase and lease of the parking lot. He also discussed the possibility of the county utilizing the property for a pilot paid parking program, estimating that $900,000 a year could be brought in by charging $25 a day for parking spaces.

District 4 Commissioner Donna Johns commented that in her opinion the BCC should either sell the parking area at a good (favorable to the county) price or use it for paid parking. With the latter option, she said, “I would like to see the locals not have to pay.”

Later during the meeting, Johns spoke in support of paid parking throughout south Walton County.

If the property were sold, Johns said she would be in favor of using the funds to buy some beachfront property for public use.

District 2 Commissioner Danny Glidewell also spoke in support of a locals or frequent user card or a similar mechanism if there is paid parking at the parking lot.

Sunday was directed to look into the options for the property in more detail and bring back information at the next BCC meeting. District 1 Commissioner Boots McCormick also asked him to sit down with each commissioner individually before the meeting to discuss the options.

There was a public comment by Richard Jabbour, a Seaside resident, in favor of paid parking at the former Van Ness Butler, Jr., Regional Beach Access.

Other public comment included remarks by Jeremy Barnes, executive director for Seaside Community Development Corporation, who respectfully asked the commissioners to consider allowing Seaside to lease the parking area in the interest of furthering Seaside’s ongoing traffic management initiatives.

Micah Davis of the Seaside Community Development Corporation also spoke in support of the county leasing the parking area to Seaside or doing a county pilot parking project in order to alleviate traffic congestion. However he was of the opinion that a free-for-locals parking program would not be beneficial to relieving that congestion and noted that it would result in missed opportunity for revenue that could be used to fund public transportation.

In other public comment, Amy Wise-Coble, a member of the Walton County Tourist Development Council requested that the council be brought in on discussion about the parking lot and urged for the property to continue to be used for its intended purpose of serving the tourism industry in some fashion.

As yet there has been no announcement by the Watercolor on plans related to the beach access easement.