By DOTTY NIST
The beaches in Walton County remain closed to all persons except official personnel, including law enforcement, at least through April 30. This is in the wake of an April 13 court denial of an emergency injunction request by Walton County property owners. These owners had contested a county ordinance closing the beach both to members of the public and beachfront property owners.
On April 2, Walton County had voted to approved an amendment expanding its ordinance that had closed the beach to members of the public. The amended ordinance also negated beachfront property owners’ ability to access and remain on the beach on their own property.
The latter move had triggered a lawsuit filed by Walton County property owners, among those being Blue Mountain Beach resident and property owner Mike Huckabee, former Arkansas governor. The group of some 15 property owners consisted of beachfront property owners and property owners with legal interest in beachfront property. The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court in Pensacola.
Both beach closure ordinances had been part of the county’s efforts to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
The term “beach” in the ordinance/amended ordinance is defined as “the soft sandy portion of land lying seaward of the seawall or the line of permanent dune vegetation.”
In their lawsuit, the property owners had alleged a series of constitutional violations—and had asserted that the county had exceeded its authority by restricting them from access and use of (part of) their own property.
As part of the property owners’ lawsuit, heard on April 13 was an emergency motion for a preliminary injunction. With this motion, the plaintiffs sought to have the court bar the county from enforcing the county’s amended ordinance that had disallowed them, their families and guests, from being on the beach on their property.
In a memo accompanying the property owners’ emergency motion, the plaintiffs made a number of arguments in support of the court immediately barring the county from enforcing the amended ordinance. Among these was that the “injuries suffered” by the property owners were “irreparable,” exceeding the benefit gained by the ordinance—and that barring enforcement of the amended ordinance would be in the public benefit.
The April 13 hearing on the motion for preliminary injunction was conducted by telephone, with Senior U.S. District Judge Roger Vinson presiding.
A “Civil Minutes – General” document was issued on April 13 following the hearing, indicating that Vinson had orally denied the emergency motion at the telephonic hearing. The decision followed arguments presented by attorneys for the plaintiffs, the county, and Walton County Sheriff Mike Adkinson, who was named as a defendant along with the county.
The document noted that the hearing began at 10:30 a.m. and that court was adjourned at 12:38 p.m.
An official judge’s order regarding the emergency motion has not been released at this time.
The amended ordinance closing the beach to all persons in Walton County remains in force through April 30 and is subject to being extended by the Walton County Board of County Commissioners.
The property owners’ lawsuit remains in court, with other motions filed by the plaintiffs and defendants under review by Judge Vinson.