Walton County votes to settle lawsuit involving Gulf Shore Manor subdivision [PREMIUM]

AERIAL MAP showing roads and beach access areas in the Gulf Shore Manor, a Seagrove-area subdivision that was the subject of a recent settlement agreement approved by the Walton County Board of County Commissioners. (Credit: Walton County GIS)

By DOTTY NIST

A quiet title lawsuit against Walton County that Gulf Shore Manor subdivision property owners had feared would result in homeowners in the gulf front subdivision and the public being blocked from the beach and subdivision roads has been settled with some assurances to the homeowners.

Among those are roads and beach access points in the subdivision being conveyed to Walton County and easements being provided to the county for other beach access points.

The Walton County Board of County Commissioners (BCC) approved an agreement to settle the lawsuit at a Sept. 28 special meeting following a closed executive session. This was at the South Walton Annex.

The quiet title lawsuit had been filed in April 2019 in Walton County Circuit Court by a group of land trusts who asserted ownership claims involving what they termed “remnant” property within the Seagrove-area subdivision, including subdivision roads and beach property. 

        A quiet title action is a civil action through which a party or parties with legal interest or ownership of property ask a court to clear “clouds” on the property title, removing legal interests of other parties in the property.

In addition to quiet title, the trusts had also sought, among other requests, right of exclusion for the property in question, including the right to exclude any person not invited or specifically authorized to be on the property.

The trusts had also asserted that the county’s use of portions of the property in question for public beach access, parking and vendors has represented a “taking.”

A number of public beach accesses are located in the Gulf Shore Manor subdivision, including the Santa Clara/Bramble Grove Regional Beach Access and the San Juan, Pelayo, and Dothan Street/Barcelona Street neighborhood beach accesses.

A different entity, SHH Investments, L.L.C., later became the successor to the land trusts and became the plaintiff in the quiet title lawsuit.

Homeowners in the Gulf Shore Manor subdivision had attempted to intervene in the quiet title lawsuit, but their request to participate had been denied by the court.

The settlement agreement was brought up for consideration at the Sept. 28 BCC special meeting with little discussion by the commissioners. The special meeting was open to public comment, and one Gulf Shore Manor homeowner took the opportunity to address the commissioners via ZOOM.

Dana Harman, who identified herself as a full-time resident of the subdivision and owner of Gulf Shore Manor properties for over 20 years, commented, “My neighbors and I have lived under a stressful cloud of uncertainty for the past 2 1/2 years, wondering if we would have continued access and use of our platted beaches and roads. Some of the roads shown as exhibits in this case provide the only means of ingress and egress to bordering parcels. If this became private property, how would my neighbors access their properties?”

Harman continued with concerns about other aspects of the case, including possible impacts on property values in the subdivision.

“My neighbors and I are also deeply concerned about our property values,” she said, “which would be detrimentally and irreversibly impacted by the loss of any of our rights to use the five platted roads that provide access to our beaches. Each one is vital to our large subdivision of almost 400 properties.”

She also warned of a precedent that could be set in the case that could carry over to other communities and result in them losing their shared beach access “to the singular benefit of private development.”

Among other remarks, Harman concluded by telling the commissioners, “My neighbors and I ask you today for assurance that our established rights will be protected, and that the county will not approve construction of private residences…on gulf shore beach or our platted roads. Thank you for your consideration.”

Clay Adkinson, acting county attorney, noted for the record that the county had attempted to have the circuit court join other parties in the case, including homeowners in the Gulf Shore Manor subdivision, based on the idea that the homeowners’ rights would be affected by the case and that they would be an indispensable part of the case. “The circuit court rejected that argument,” he said.

Adkinson also explained that due to that determination the court was not entering judgment or rulings against “any other parties.”

He asked Adam Cobb, outside legal counsel for the county on the case, to provide some details on the terms of the settlement agreement.

Cobb explained that the agreement would provide for the existing roads in the subdivision to be conveyed to the county, along with the Bramble Grove and San Juan beach access points. In addition, he noted, an easement in favor of the county would be included at the Pelayo and Barcelona Street beach access points.

“Finally,” Cobb said, “it includes an easement from the plaintiffs directly to the Gulf Shore Manor owners for each of the existing five access points from 30A to the beach, as well as the sandy beach area…separating those…access points from the gulf.”

With those remarks concluded and no other member of the public responding to the invitation to comment, the commissioners voted unanimously to approve the settlement agreement.

The settlement agreement has not yet been made public, and no additional details on the agreement have been provided at this time.