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MIRAMAR BEACH — An American flag was being flown upside down for much of the day Tuesday from a pole on the grounds of Camp Gulf in Walton County.
The business, which appears in legal documents as Camping on the Gulf Land LLC, was one of 15 beach owner clients who came out on the losing end of a Monday hearing in Federal Court.
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Area residents and Facebook posters believed Camp Gulf owners were flying the internationally known dire distress signal to make a statement about the ruling, which prevented them from re-opening the private beaches behind their RV park.
Most found the display distasteful and disrespectful.
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“Flying the American flag upside down, for me that is horrible,” said Suzanne Harris, president of Edgewater Condominiums, located down the road from Camp Gulf.
“I’m not telling them they can’t do it. I’m just saying it’s not helpful right now,” said Destin City Councilman Parker Destin. “It just appears this is a temper tantrum because they lost a court case.”
In a lengthy written response, Camp Gulf manager Patrick O’Neill denied the flag was being flown upside down to anger anyone or protest a court ruling.
“The reason we fly the American flag is not to be disrespectful. It is not to thumb our nose at the authorities. It is to remind the authorities that they cannot continually erode our rights down to nothing without (our) speaking out against them,” he said.
”It is not a disrespect, in fact it is quite the opposite. It is a sign of distress. In this case it is a distress of property. This same county that has continually eroded our rights has recently ’taken control’ of the property,“ the release said.
At a Monday hearing, District Court Judge Roger Vinson denied a request that an injunction be issued to prevent Walton County from enforcing an emergency ordinance that closes all county beaches, both public and private.
The beaches were closed to prevent potential spread of the novel coronavirus COVID-19.
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The injunction hearing was only a first step toward resolving a lawsuit filed by the same 15 property owners seeking to overturn the Walton County ordinance, which was amended April 2 to include privately owned beach properties.
Attorneys for the beach owners involved in the suit, which include former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, argued that closing the deeded beach areas they own amounts to a seizure of private property.
Camp Gulf was singled out at the hearing as an example of government overreach, which attorney Kent Safriet said included sanctioned harassment of property owners by Walton County Sheriff’s Office deputies, code enforcement officers and even lifeguards.
“The sheriff is sitting on privately owned, dry sand beach to prevent people from accessing their own beach,” Safriet had argued.
At Camp Gulf, Safriet said at the hearing, deputies and/or code enforcement officers had run visitors off from picnic tables and even made several recreational vehicles move off of parking slabs that were deemed to be too close to the Gulf of Mexico.
Vinson, who expressed concerns about how Walton County’s ordinance “is construed and applied” took interest in the events described by Safriet. Safriet, who had no direct evidence to support his claims, offered to provide an affidavit by Monday afternoon as verification.
No affidavit had been issued into the court record as of Tuesday afternoon. Safriet said Tuesday he didn’t feel the need to produce the document following the judge’s ruling against his clients.
He said Tuesday he has seen the empty slabs from which the RV’s were ordered moved.
“There are no campers there now, and they would be there, it’s beachfront,” Safriet said.
O’Neill, who has managed the RV Park for 25 years, claimed that deputies came “inside the campsites,” approximately 150 feet from the beach, to harass visitors.
“We have a problem, and it’s not COVID-19 and it’s not shutting down the public beach. It’s deputies and county commissioners making decisions about private property,” he said.
Walton County Sheriff Michael Adkinson called into question several of the statements made in court, and said body cam footage could clear his deputies of any wrongdoing.
“No one was ever ordered to move an RV, and I have the body cam to prove it,” he said.
Adkinson said his officers were recently called out to Camp Gulf after it was reported that employees there had moved a sand fence 30 feet from the back of an existing dune to a location in front of the dune, and then set up picnic tables behind the fence and closer to the Gulf of Mexico.
“They were confronted, no citations were issued. We did refer the incident to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection,” Adkinson said.
Adkinson said the Sheriff’s Office has also been forced to remove people staying at Camp Gulf from the beach itself.
Shortly before 1 p.m. on April 4, two days after Walton County issued its order closing private beaches, deputies filed a call report after responding to Camp Gulf.
“This is the third incident where (former facility name) Camping on the Gulf patrons and employees have been non-compliant with current executive order and local Walton County ordinance 2020-09,” the report said. “Any time we address the ordinance tactfully and professional. The immediate response is ’my attorney said’, and at that point they are educated to further gain compliance.”
“The beach patrons are confused because they state that Camping on the Gulf has told them that their beaches are open,” the report states.
Though private beaches remain closed and Gov. Ron DeSantis has placed a temporary ban on short-term rentals, Camp Gulf advertises on its website as “open for business.”
“The public beaches have been closed by Walton County. Fortunately, the vast majority of our beach here at Camp Gulf is privately owned and open,” the website states.
“We apologize to our guests for the local confusion due to the various agencies not understanding the boundaries of private property,” it says. “If you encounter any issues with the sheriff or other county personnel regarding your use of the beach call the manager.”