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Walton County One Step Closer to Customary Use

Tonia Shatzel

After six hours of testimony and public comment, Walton County Commissioners voted 5-0 last weekend to take the case of customary use to the circuit court.

The vote is the first step into declaring that beachgoers can access the dry sand areas that are private property.

Customary use is the belief that beaches have been public property as long as humans have used them. And it’s been a big issue in Walton County since House Bill 631 was signed into law in April by Governor Rick Scott.

The county had a customary use ordinance in place since 2016, but it was void with the passage of HB 631, which “authorizes a person with “superior right to possession or real property” and “prohibits local government from enacting or enforcing ordinance or rule based on customary use.”

Commissioners were supposed to vote during a public hearing in September but could take no formal action when it was discovered that some property owners did not receive notice through certified mail. Instead, commissioners took public comments.

On Saturday, Nov. 3, commissioners held another public hearing. An estimated 450 people were in attendance — about half of the attendance at the September meeting. There was more than two hours of public comments and more than 13,000 affidavits submitted in support of customary use. 

Credit Tom McLaughlin / Northwest Florida Daily News
Northwest Florida Daily News
Ann Tucker, chairwoman of the Muscogee Nation of Florida, speaks at the customary use hearing last weekend in Santa Rosa Beach.

One of the more impassioned speeches came from Ann Tucker, chairwoman of the Muscogee Nation of Florida, headquartered in Bruce. She said the Native American tribe had used the beaches long before it was parceled out into private ownership. It was a place they gathered shells for sacred burial grounds and salt water for medicinal purposes. She compared customary use to the subjugation of Native American people.

“We were taught to take only what you need for your community, not everything you want,” she said. “It’s the way we should treat this place. Controlled access means nothing more than the subjugation of a traditional way of life of Indian people.”

Opponents of customary use — primarily beachfront homeowners — argue that the county should invest money into purchasing beachfront property instead of a lawsuit. Some property owners and their attorneys have made it clear that they are willing to fight the case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

“It’s an uphill battle and a tremendous waste of time,” said Bill Hackmeyer, who owns property in the Vizcaya neighborhood where “no trespassing” signs are posted in the dry sand of the beach. “In Vizcaya, we have spent $1.2 million restoring beaches with our own money…the same beaches the county wants to take away from us.” 

Credit Jennie McKeon / WUWF
A line of residents wait to make a comment at the Nov. 3 public hearing.

Property rights attorney Dana Matthews, who represents Seascape and Sandestin, argued that developments have extended to the mean high water line (the wet sand of the beach) for years.

“Every prior county commission approved all of these plats,” he said as he pointed to his PowerPoint. “Now, all of the sudden 40 years later you can imagine why some of these property owners are a little bit upset about government taking over their property without compensation.”

After the hearing, Santa Rosa Beach resident Nicole Anderson said she appreciated the civil dialogue and the unanimous vote from county commissioners.

“This land is our land,” she said. “It does not belong to one specific demographic.”

Daniel Uhlfelder, Walton County resident and attorney for the organization Florida Beaches for All, said he was pleased with the results of the hearing, but knows the fight isn’t over yet.

“(Those opposed) seem intent upon going the distance,” he said. “We’re looking at all options. And we’re happy to go as far as we need to go.”

Private beaches continue to be an issue across Northwest Florida. On Tuesday, Escambia County voters approved a referendum prohibiting any privatization through sale or lease of currently unleased properties on Santa Rosa Island. 

Jennie joined WUWF in 2018 as digital content producer and reporter.