On July 1, just as hounds of locals and tourists, alike, descend upon the beaches of Northeast Florida for the Fourth of July, a new bill, signed into law by Gov. Rick Scott last week could potentially prompt private owners of beachfront homes, condominiums or hotels to restrict the public from enjoying a coastal holiday.
Bluntly named “The Possession of Real Property” Bill, HB 631 was sponsored by representatives Katie Edwards Walpole (D-Plantation) and Senator Kathleen Passidomo (R-Naples). The bill’s passage means that it may be increasingly difficult for local governments throughout the state of Florida to protect beach access. Section 10 of the bill, specifically restricts local governments from passing local customary use ordinances—which open up beaches for general public use—directly, making it so a court must ratify such a declaration.
Florida law already maintains private property of beachfront owners up to the mean high-water line, but according to Holly Parker, Regional Manager of Florida for the Surfrider Foundation, the bill enacts a new process for opening up beach accesses to the public, potentially threatening local economies heavily dependent on tourists who visit these region’s beaches.
According to Parker, in the past, a property owner who wished to restrict access had to take the matter up in court. Once HB 631 takes effect, however, it’ll be up to the local governments to apply for and enact ordinances to allow for public access.
Will private beachfront property owners begin roping off, or kicking people off sections of the beach adjacent to their property?
For his part Jacksonville Beach City Manager George Forbes says he doesn’t believe the new law will have much of an impact on Duval County beaches.
“We don’t have a customary use ordinance [in Jacksonville Beach], but I don’t think the bill will have any impact on our beach communities,” Forbes says. “We have plenty of access points, which are not on private property.”
Forbes argues that the counties that have enacted public use permits in the state are few and far between. While he’s correct, one of those counties–St. Johns–has been home to decades of tumult over public beach access, which with very few easements and little parking from Ponte Vedra Beach south to Vilano, is heavily impeded.
“At this time I’m not concerned [about beach access in Jacksonville Beach],” Forbes reiterates. “Even if we had a problem, the bill states that a determination could be made by a court to open up access.”
Which, according Parker, is precisely the problem.
“I question whether city officials will have the stomach to combat wealthy property owners who may seek to restrict beach access,” says Parker. Last month, opponents of the bill, including The Sierra Club, the Florida Wildlife Federation, and representatives from 40 Surfrider chapters from across the Sunshine State visited Tallahassee to speak against the bill and meet with their local legislators.
But with Gov. Scott’s signature, the bill is law, and beginning July 1 a new chapter in the battle for public beach access in Florida will begin.
We’ll keep you updated as things pro(re?)gress.