By now, you have heard people grumbling about Rick Scott signing the Private Beach Anti-Customary Use Law (HB631) this year.
The new law has opened a can of worms that may take years to sort out. It has also laid bare some of the state’s most inept leaders and corrupt political missteps to finally wake panhandle voters from their slumber.
Since July 1st, when the law took effect and nullified Customary Use ordinances passed after 2016, rural leaders in Walton County have been scrambling to deal with the effects of the law. Those effects range from tourism crushing articles about grumpy rich locals littering the county’s only attraction with Keep Off My Lawn signs, to beachfront owners calling the sheriff on tourists sitting in their sand, to a useless Executive Order signed by Scott to save face, to a viral video of deputies drawing a line in the wet sand, and the end of trash collection on the newly minted “private” beaches of South Walton.
For a county where fickle tourists provide $4.4 billion in annual economic impact and 65% of all area taxes, and where the beach is a way of life, anger at Rick Scott and the elected leaders responsible for the law has been intense. And, it has spread to beach towns across Florida concerned about the impact of this particular Pandora’s Box.
“In Florida, as the Florida Supreme Court has recognized, customary use rights arise where the public’s use has been ancient, reasonable, without interruption, and free from dispute. – Surfrider Foundation
The issue is as complicated as it is simple.
Simply put, planned communities do not exist in a vacuum. Not even resort communities. They require buy-in and support from existing local politicians and stakeholders as part of a long range comprehensive plan. And, residents in and around booming new communities filling with wealthy, well-connected new neighbors need better representation than county leaders alone can provide.
But, to really understand the issue, one must delve far deeper in the politics of the region once known as the Redneck Riviera.
Having just made the map 30 years ago because of their squeaky clean beaches and New Urbanist design, South Walton County was woefully unprepared for the Carl Hiassen-worthy karmic irony it now finds itself facing thanks to Rick Scott and a handful of very well connected beachfront owners.
The beaches of South Walton, ground zero of this particular political drama, comprise the completely unincorporated area south of the Choctawhatchee Bay bordered on either side by the mega- tourist destinations of Destin and Panama City Beach. An otherwise rural community on the outskirts Eglin Air Force Base and Hurlburt Field, residents proudly talk of the area’s frequent “Sound of Freedom,” which is actually the disconcerting boom of munitions testing by the Department of Defense.
The rural beach with the squeaky white sand that time forgot first received national attention with the development of the “community” of Seaside 30 years ago.
Seaside was the brainchild of Robert Davis, hailed as one of the foremost visionaries of the New Urbanism movement of city planning. Davis turned his inherited 80 acres of sand and scrub into the world’s first New Urbanist town studied by planning students worldwide.
According to their website, Seaside offers a thriving town center within walkable distance to more than 300 homes. It has received accolades from Travel + Leisure magazine and USA Today’s “Top 10 Best Beach Towns in Florida.” Seaside also served, in quite the foreshadowing twist, as the location for the classic things-aren’t-always-what-they-seem movie, “The Truman Show” starring Jim Carrey.
Not long after Davis started selling Seaside lots, Dr. Stephen Leatherman, best known as Dr. Beach, named nearby Grayton Beach as the Best Beach in America for 1994. Locals tell tales of the limos arriving shortly thereafter to scoop up cheap beachfront property in the otherwise rural communities around Santa Rosa Beach which is still the postal designation for most of the unincorporated area.
Variations on Davis’ New Urbanist beach town began to develop or redevelop existing communities all along the stretch of State Highway 30A eventually becoming the “16 beach neighborhoods” of South Walton. These include but are not limited to the well known vacation hotspots: Watercolor, Alys Beach, and Rosemary Beach. 30A has since become known for a lifestyle brand and hyperlocal news hub.
Simply put, New Urbanism was the most important planning movement of the 20th century offering such lofty goals as “creating a better future.”
It remains an international movement to reform the design of the built environment by focusing on improving quality of life and standard of living by creating better places to live. New Urbanism centers on the revival of the lost art of place–making by re-ordering the built environment into the form of complete cities, towns, villages, and neighborhoods – the way communities were built for centuries around the world. Planners using New Urbanist design are determined to fix and infill cities, as well as create compact and walkable new towns and villages.
As the very first New Urbanist “town,” Seaside, and thus South Walton, attracted architects, designers and planners from around the world. It was designed to be an idyllic and inspiring community where residents could easily walk to the town center and the area’s only real attraction: the white sands of the Gulf Coast.
Instead, Seaside and its surrounding communities may have recently become a worthy case study for how NOT to design a better quality of life.
As the “town” morphed from Davis’ dream of an idyllic beach community into a professionally managed resort of independently owned properties, there are now less than two dozen full time residents living in the unincorporated “town” with no elected representation. Approximately 26,000 local residents and more than 4 million annual visitors to Seaside and its surrounding copy-cat New Urbanist South Walton beach neighborhood resorts now find themselves fighting dangerous pedestrian conditions in bumper to bumper traffic along 30A and increasing disputes over who can use the beaches in the first place.
Walton County residents also once again find themselves with virtual one-party rule – which many are loathe to identify as a possible cause for their woes.
Despite setting aside a large portion of its 26-mile beachside areas in state parks beachgoers may pay to use, county planners forgot to include adequate beach access for both the actual residents and the millions of visitors who sport blue 30A stickers on the backs of their expensive SUVs making the trek down from Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama along Highway 331. Unlike most coastal towns in Florida which have ample beach access at the beach end of every street, South Walton currently only offers eight regional beach access points with parking.
The vast majority of South Walton beach access points instead are walk or bike-up only accesses known as “Neighborhood Beach Accesses” surrounded on each side by private property.
As new residents moved into the unincorporated South Walton area after the development of Seaside, locals complain that they immediately tried to close the proverbial gates behind them, turning the beach side of the rural county into a playground for the white Republican elite such as Mike Huckabee and Karl Rove. In the rural county of less than 60,000 residents with one of the highest rates of income inequality in the nation and no other economy to speak of, resentment grew toward the elite new residents if not toward the political party enabling them.
Yet, in part because none of the “beach communities” were incorporated, planning remained the responsibility of a county government seat located almost an hour away near the Alabama state line. North Walton County residents similarly unnerved by the growing elitism of beachfront owners came face to face with the growing power imbalance between north and south.
In a major and far reaching victory for beachfront property owners in March of 2016, for example, the Walton County Board of County Commissioners voted to table and effectively end the Hurricane Storm Damage Reduction Project.
An 18.8 mile beach re–nourishment project the county had been working towards for a decade with the Army Corps of Engineers to protect the region from beach erosion and storm surge, the effort was defeated by a vocal minority of beachfront owners. Having seen the re-nourishment project east of 30A through Sandestin, they were unhappy that re-nourishment might bring less than perfect sand and would permanently set their property lines to the erosion control line rather than the more flexible mean high water line.
The private property rights crowd were able to effectuate the decision when the county oddly decided to count non-answers to a survey for approval as no votes. The beach renourishment decision set the stage for the Customary Use battle to come that same year that saw Mr. Huckabee work his star power as Vice Chairman of the local Customary Use Committee.
As the committee was trying to reach consensus on the issue between beachfront owners, county residents, environmentalists and officials, a last minute amendment to favor the property owners was added to a bill in Tallahassee, nicknamed the Huckabee Amendment. It ultimately failed and the county’s first Customary Use ordinance was enacted by the local county commission in October.
In 2017, A Better South Walton, a local group working toward incorporation of South Walton as a city with elected representation of its own abruptly announced it was suspending its efforts to focus on education.
Without organized municipal leadership at the local level, the residents of South Walton who could not afford lawyers and lobbyists had to continue to rely on efforts by the county government to provide beach access planning and protect their interests in Tallahassee. Much of these efforts fell to the TDC who had begun purchasing beachfront property in 2016 with unused funds leftover from failed beach management efforts, possibly thwarted by some of the same beachfront owners now cashing in for millions.
Although it failed as an amendment, the Huckabee Amendment found its way onto the state legislative calendar. The new law passed by a majority in the GOP controlled Florida legislature. It specifically nullified customary use laws passed since 2016, leaving in place others across the state and only voiding Walton County’s local law. Residents, realtors and tourism leaders aeross the state took notice and lobbied the governor not to sign it into law.
Despite 8-1 calls against the law, Governor Rick Scott signed HB631 into law to take effect on July 1st, the height of tourist season.
Now that the issue has created a flashpoint for private property rights versus the public use of Florida beaches, usually reliable panhandle Republican voters are instead infuriated at Scott for choosing to listen to the demands of wealthy beachfront owners rather than the vast majority of residents.
The local paper has even shot down the favorite argument of beachfront property owners – that they are paying taxes on the property and allowing any of it to be used by the public (or renourished for the good of the community) would constitute a loss of property value for them.
Scott, now running for United States Senate, issued a hurried EO in July after the furor erupted. Trying to play all sides at once, his order claimed to protect “beach access” in a transparent effort to confuse the common man while actually doing nothing about the chaos his signature on HB631 has caused.
HB631 did not undermine “accesses.” It affected use of the sand around them.
The protest responses in the panhandle have been bipartisan. They span from a Stand Your Sand event organized by one of Seaside’s most successful business owners, to a popular Facebook group, Instagram group, yet another Facebook Group, and most recently the Sit-In (sit-down) by attorney Daniel Uhlfelder and former South Walton Artist of the Year, Justin Gaffrey, which made the sort of news that local TDCs dread. Organizations such as Indivisible Northwest Florida and Progressives Northwest Florida have adopted the issue as communities from Pensacola to Naples are also forming organized efforts to fight the potential effects of HB631.
Word is spreading among those who realize that Walton County is a test case that could restrict beaches across the state – at least in areas that have not established public common use with beach re-nourishment. Just this week, a local candidate for Walton County Commission gathered 1000 signatures in just 48 hours to repeal HB631 following promises by a St. Pete Democrat to introduce repeal in the 2019 legislative session.
So the question remains as to whether Florida beaches like 30A in South Walton will ultimately become gated communities with the public shooed into tightly packed designated areas to keep the segregated from those who can afford to live (or rent a home for a week) directly on the beach.
The double-think pushed on the masses about the need to protect private property rights in this case will only work for so long, however, as the recent editorial in the Northwest Florida Daily News points out.
Eventually all politicians may come face to face with an ancient truth about customary use:
All politics is local — and all Floridians love their beaches.
Gayla Schaefer, MPA is a freelance writer and communications consultant in Tampa. Her work has been published by IGI Global, FLORIDA TODAY, and republished by the Associated Press. Follow her at @DharmaMum
Nice overview of a complicated issue … most locals and homeowners are on the forum at http://www.SoWal.com though – the facebook group is heavily censorored.
My name is Lowell Hall. I am the president of citizens for a public beaches and shores established in 1973. We collected 9000 notarized affidavits of customary use between the signing of House Bill 631 and it’s effective date of July 1. We have been fighting the privatization of the beaches of Amelia Island for almost 50 years at the city county and state levels. We know the ropes we are here to help . Lowell Hall Pres CFPBS. DLHALL7007@aol.com
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