Federal court judge rules for county in lawsuit involving Headland Avenue

RECENT GOOGLE map showing North Headland Avenue and South Headland Avenue, the latter labeled as “Sheadland Avenue” on the map. (Photo/map credit: Google Map data @2020, Imagery @2020 Technologies, USDA Farm Service Agency, Map data @2020)

By DOTTY NIST

There has been a federal court ruling granting Walton County’s motion to dismiss a lawsuit in which property owners had claimed ownership of property that Walton County maintains was dedicated to the public.

The lawsuit was filed by a Louisiana resident and a Louisiana limited liability company who are owners of a beachfront lot in Lot 5, Block J of the Seagrove-area Seahighland subdivision.

The court order was issued by United States District Judge M. Casey Rodgers on Oct. 16.

In their court complaint, filed at the end of January 2020, the plaintiff property owners had claimed ownership of an area located immediately west of their lot—an area shown on the Seahighland subdivision plat as a southerly extension of Headland Avenue. Headland Avenue is a road dedicated to the public, according to the plat.

Walton County had contended that the county owns and controls the property in question, referred to the Judge Casey’s order as the “disputed space.”

The lawsuit had been aimed at barring ongoing efforts by Walton County/the Walton County Tourist Development Council to put in place a public dune walkover and other beach access improvements at the south end of Headland Avenue within the disputed space.

Walton County had created plans for a dune walkover on the beach at the location, and county staff have referred to this location as an “existing, unimproved beach access.” In past years, beachgoers used a sand path leading to the shore from Headland Avenue, but in recent years landscaping installed by adjacent property owners made use of the sand path difficult.

The Seahighland subdivision plat, recorded in Walton County public records in 1949, shows spaces known as “breezeway spaces” on the east and west side of each lot except, as explained in the judge’s order, for lots bordered on the east and west by avenues. The avenues include Dothan Avenue, Andalusia Avenue, Greenwood Avenue, and, finally, Headland Avenue on the far west side of the subdivision plat.

South of the avenues and other roads and subdivision lots, the plat shows a “Beach reserved for Public,” with the avenues shown as extending all the way to the publicly-dedicated beach. The plat also contains a dedication signed by owners, at the time, of the land encompassed by the plat, signifying that those owners dedicated all of the streets, roads and parks shown on the plat to the public.

Restrictions applying to the subdivision were also recorded in 1949, referencing the breezeway spaces and directing that the breezeways remain free of structures and open, in order to allow for “free flow of air.”

However, in October, 2017, as part of a quiet title action in Walton County Circuit Court, heirs of Seahighland developer W.B. Pender had stated that the breezeways had never been dedicated to the public or to Walton County by means of the plat or otherwise.

The Lot 5, Block J lot owners’ claim of ownership of the disputed area to the west of their lot had been based on the contention that, rather than being a road, that area was instead a breezeway not dedicated to public use.

PORTION OF 1949 plat for the Seahighland subdivision showing Headland Avenue, as platted, on far left (west) side.

Providing both a 1949 aerial map and a recent Google map of the area as evidence, the property owners argued that both images demonstrated that at no time had Headland Avenue been extended south to the beach across the disputed area.

The property owners asserted that, evidenced by the maps (and contrary to the plat), Headland Avenue was not extended south to the beach but instead turns to the east onto the east-west roadway Montgomery Street at the location of their property.

They further argued that the disputed space had been used as a breezeway since 1949—and that it had never been used for pedestrian beach access, as a street or road, or been maintained or used by the county.

The property owners had sought a court declaration that the disputed space was intended to be used as a breezeway and not a public access to the beach, a declaration that they were the owners of the space, and an injunction barring the county from constructing the public beach access in this location.

Walton County had moved for dismissal of the property owners’ complaint, primarily on the argument that the plat was unambiguous in showing the disputed space as a road/street dedicated to the public. Secondly, Walton County had maintained that other owners of lots in the subdivision were “indispensable parties” whose interests would be directly impacted by the outcome of the case, also pointing out that these other lot owners had not been joined in the lawsuit. The Lot 5, Black J property owners had disputed that the other lot owners were indispensable in the matter.

In her ruling, Judge Casey found that the property owners’ evidence, including the aerial photos, “may not be considered because the Plat is facially unambiguous.”

She granted Walton County’s motion to dismiss the property owners’ complaint.

The court order allows the plaintiffs to either file an additional amended complaint on or before Oct. 30 if they opt to do so, or to file a notice by that date stating their intent not to file an amended complaint. In the absence of the amended complaint having been filed by Oct. 30, the court has stated that a final appealable order will be issued.