Acknowledging that H.B. 631, which nullified Walton County’s customary use ordinance, has created “considerable confusion,” Gov. Rick Scott on Thursday placed a moratorium on state regulation that could inhibit public beach access.

 

In an executive order issued late in the day, Scott also urged local officials to take steps similar to his “to protect Floridians access to the beach.”

"Every Floridian and visitor has the right to fully enjoy our state's natural resources," Scott said in a press release announcing the order. “Florida beaches belong to all of us, and people from across the world visit Florida because of them — and we are going to keep it that way.”

HB631, while passed with overwhelming bi-partisan support, “has now created considerable confusion and some have even interpreted it as restricting beach access,” Scott said in the release. “I’m committed to keeping our beaches open to the public.”

Scott’s order outlines several steps the state would take to protect beach access, but fell short of addressing private property versus customary use questions, which are those Walton County faces.

 

Asked to provide specifics about how Scott’s order would impact Walton County, Scott spokesman John Tupps referred such questions to local officials.

Contacted after business hours, Walton County spokesman Louis Svehla said he had not seen the governor’s executive order and could not comment.

State Rep. Brad Drake, R-DeFuniak Springs, said the governor’s order “clearly reiterates that common sense should prevail.”

Drake said in reading of the executive order, the general public should have access to white sand beach areas now deemed private property.

“To me it looks like if you go onto the beaches and some nut tries to tell you to get off the beach, that to me would be the exact opposite of what the governor’s order is intended to portray,” he said.

Florida Democrats were quick to attack Scott’s order, calling it, in essence, political pandering.

“While it is welcome news that Floridians could now be able to access their beaches without fear of prosecution, this is yet another example of how Rick Scott will say and do anything to get elected,” a statement from the Democratic Party of Florida said. “Scott literally just signed the law that allowed residents to restrict beach access. These election year actions remind Floridians that Rick Scott has spent the past seven years as governor looking out for himself at the expense of Florida.”

Walton County is the only county directly impacted thus far by HB 631. Since it went into effect July 1, numerous beachfront property owners have begun ordering beachgoers off the white sand portions of their deeded land. Sheriff's deputies have been called to remove trespassers.

Some beachfront owners also have requested that county vehicles be restricted from driving across the white sand areas of their properties.

County officials have vowed to take legal steps necessary under HB 631 to re-establish customary use of the beach. Under the customary use doctrine, all beachgoers are entitled to access on grounds that people have used the beaches as long as mankind has walked the earth.

Customary use proponent Dave Rauschkolb said Scott must clearly state the intent of his order.

“We need to be absolutely certain of what he is saying. The word ‘access’ is mentioned often in the governor’s statement. This is not about access; this is about USE. Customary use of the beaches,” Rauschkolb said. “We need to know exactly how long it lasts. Is it permanent? And is it on all the Florida beaches? And is it defined from the dune line to the waterline? Does the public have an easement on the sandy areas of Florida’s beaches regardless of whether beachfront owners deeds go to the waterline? It’s not about access, it’s about use. If it truly is about customary use, then we have something to celebrate.”

Walton County Sheriff Michael Adkinson, who applauded Scott's the executive order, said in a live webcast Thursday evening that to his way of thinking “access and use are the same thing.”

Adkinson said he believes the executive order provides guidelines his agency needs to enforce trespass laws on the beach.

"I shouldn’t be the club used to resolve these issues. At the same time, I’m not going to let any party, whether they be the public or a private property owner or whatever the situation may be, I’m not going to allow them to exacerbate the situation and cause a conflict, to the best of my ability," he said.

"My interpretation is that there needs to be clear and compelling, unmitigated evidence that you are willfully trying to deprive somebody of use of their property before we try to make an arrest," Adkinson said. "If you stage a sit-in and get into a shouting and cussing match on this person’s property just to prove that you can do it, it’s going to end poorly for you. And, quite frankly, it should, because you’re not helping. If you’re for customary use, you’re not helping anybody by exacerbating the situation because the governor’s been pretty clear that you’re fixing to get some direction ... "

In his executive order, Scott called for a moratorium to be placed on any new state rule or regulation that could inhibit public beach access, and also urged local government officials to take similar steps to protect Floridians access to the beach.

The order directs the Department of Environmental Protection to “serve as an advocate for the public’s right to public beach access.”

The order called for establishment of an online reporting tool so that state residents concerned about beach access can “provide input” that the DEP will compile and submit to governor and Florida Legislature prior to the next legislative session.

“DEP will also serve as a liaison to local governments to ensure the public’s right to access the beach is protected,” the order said.

Drake said Thursday evening he intended to contact the DEP before the day ended regarding the governor’s order.

“This is a clear signal from the governor of his intent to fully apply the law,” Drake said.

The governor urged, but did not require, local governments to hold off on adopting rules or ordinances that would restrict or eliminate public access to the state’s beaches. He called upon every county to follow suit.

The governor urged state attorneys in Florida “to protect Floridians’ constitutional right to access to the beach.”

State Attorney Bill Eddins, who recently reversed a declaration that Walton County beachgoers would not be prosecuted for criminal trespass on the county’s beaches to state such prosecutions could take place in some instances, saluted the governor’s order.

“I am pleased the governor has entered this executive order. I hope that it assists authorities in Walton County in resolving any disputes with citizens in regard to beach access."