Customary Use is a big issue in the state of Florida.
It’s the belief that beaches have been public property as long as humans have used them, which is why counties across Florida have passed customary use ordinances allowing access to both public access points and in front of beachfront homes.
In April 2018, the Florida Legislature passed House Bill 631. The bill, which received bipartisan support, 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.”
The Walton County Board of Commissioners is moving forward to restore public beach access along the South Walton beaches under new provisions of the House bill.
On September 8 at 9 a.m., commissioners will hold a public hearing at the South Walton High School auditorium to “affirm the existence of recreational customary uses on beachfront property in Walton County.”
Public Information Officer for Walton County Louis Svehla said the hearing is the first step toward a customary use ordinance.
"Based on the legislation passed this year by the state of Florida, House Bill 631, it requires that we hold a public meeting regarding our intent to move forward with the customary use ordinance," he said.
A draft of the ordinance will be presented at the hearing, Svehla said.
"That would be the ordinance that would be presented along with all of the other information to a judge who would ultimately then decide whether customary use could exist in the forum that we’re trying to have."
In 2016, Walton County Commissioners passed a customary use ordinance giving the public the right to enjoy privately-owned beaches without fear of prosecution.
"We had issues with property owners putting up fences and signs and chaining off and roping off their private property which was an environmental issue as well," Svehla said. "And that really led the board to look at our beaches, how they’ve been used customarily; what they felt was right for this area."
On July 1 of this year, HB 631 went into effect voiding the 2017 customary use ordinance and causing issues for both residents and visitors.
"We’ve had several property owners say they do not want us crossing their property in order to pick up trash that we would normally pick up on private property throughout our beach," Svehla said. "That has caused us to have to stop picking up trash in certain areas. We’ve got about 70 percent of our private property now that we’re unable to collect trash from because we are unable to traverse certain areas of the beach."
Another issue is, of course, the confusion of which beaches are public or private.
"Certainly visitors coming in, even residents, who have been going to places they’ve been used to going to and being told by homeowners that they’re going to have to move — that it’s private property," Svehla said.
Svehla said the proposed customary use ordinance will be similar to the one passed in 2017.
"We don’t anticipate it to be much different," he added. "Really, this is the process we have to go through based on the legislation. So the board will look at a draft ... and if they would like to make any changes or see something different in an ordinance."
And again, the Florida Legislature could pass another bill.
"The State legislature could certainly pass something different," Svehla said.
Svehla said the county is planning on a large crowd for the public hearing, which is why he advises anyone interested in going to arrive as early as possible. The public will be given the chance to speak at the hearing.