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Ruling upholds constitutionality of Walton County's ‘customary use’

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Tonia Shatzel
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A sign at Vizcaya Beach in Walton County.

A Walton County circuit judge has rejected a challenge to the constitutionality of “customary use,” a concept that has long allowed the public to use parts of beaches that are privately owned.

Judge David W. Green issued a 10-page ruling Monday that turned down arguments by Northshore Holdings, LLC and Lavin Family Development, LLC, which own property along the Gulf of Mexico, and contended that customary use violates the state and federal constitutions.

The Florida Constitution ensures public access to portions of beaches “below mean high water lines,” often described as wet areas of beaches. But customary use involves dry-sand areas of beaches above the mean high water line that are often privately owned. Green pointed to a 1974 Florida Supreme Court opinion that allowed the public to use those areas of beaches.

He wrote that he is “without authority to enter a judgment finding the doctrine of customary use as established by the Florida Supreme Court unconstitutional as a violation of the prohibitions against taking of property without just compensation or without due process of law.”

Walton County has been part of a series of legal battles about beach access, at least in part sparked by a controversial 2018 state law that put restrictions on customary use. David Theriaque, an attorney for Walton County, issued a statement Tuesday that said Green’s ruling “is an important step in keeping the beaches of Walton County free and accessible to residents and guests.”

News Service of Florida