Walton County's Public Hearing on Customary Use Postponed

Sep 10, 2018

A sign warns visitors of trespassing at a beach in Walton County.
Credit Tonia Shatzel

Walton County Commissioners are no closer to a customary use ordinance, but they do have dozens of public comments.

Before Saturday’s anticipated public hearing to restore public access on Walton County beaches began, the county’s attorney Sidney Noyes announced that owners of 13 different parcels of property — mostly condominium units — did not receive notice through certified mail, which is required under House Bill 631. 

"We thought we had a mechanism to capture all of these condominium units and unfortunately these 13 slipped through," Noyes said.

Commissioners agreed to take no formal action at Saturday’s meeting. The new date for the public hearing will be Nov. 3 at 9 a.m., the location is to be determined.

Almost 1,000 people attended Saturday’s meeting at South Walton High School. And for nearly three hours, individuals took their turn at the podium to express their thoughts and concerns about customary use.

Since HB 631 went into effect on July 1, beachfront property owners in Walton County can declare their beach private property and off limits to the public. The law has become a point of contention for residents.

Katherine Provencher said her family bought property in Seagrove Beach in 1975. In her mind, the property owners who want to privatize their land “must be like the Grinch.”  

“It is not sane to own to want to own every grain of sand and push people to the water line,” she said. “These beaches belong to all. We feel sorry for you but we’re not going to let you get away with it.”

Beachgoers walk past a sign recently in Walton County warning people not to trespass.
Credit Northwest Florida Daily News

Bill Hackmeyer is a homeowner in the Vizcaya neighborhood of Walton County. He’s been one of the outspoken opponents to customary use. And he didn’t miss his chance on Saturday.

“Instead of spending millions of dollars of county money on attorney fees and forcing beachfront property owners of doing the same with little chance that you will succeed, you should spend the money to buy private beach properties to convert to public use,” he said.

“We beachfront owners are not greedy or bad people we just resent the government bureaucrats telling us what to do with our beach,” he added.

Lee Shook complained of beach chair vendors and tourists setting up in the early morning hours in front of his home. He said he believes there is no need for customary use when there are an “abundance” of state and county parks.

“We have people going to the bathroom in the dunes in front of the house…I pick up trash daily,” he said. “It’s really killing the goose that laid the golden egg.”

Josephine Brown, 92, has lived in Walton County since 1949. She remembers the “bare dunes” and lack of crowds.

“It would be a great disgrace to the county if we give in,” she said. “We need to keep our beaches.”

Daniel Uhlfelder, Walton County resident and attorney for the organization Florida Beaches for All said postponing the public hearing was a “bump in the road” but not a deterrent from the goal.

Now that the hearing is so close to the general election, Uhlfelder said he believes the issue will receive an even bigger spotlight. According to the Tampa Bay Times, Gov. Rick Scott skipped a campaign stop in Santa Rosa Beach Sunday due to the backlash of HB 631, which he signed into law.

“Politicians will have to decide which side they’re on,” Uhlfelder said. “We’ll continue to push this issue until November. We’re going to get more people and more evidence. More, more, more.”