Going to the beach has never been so political as it is this year in Florida.
That’s because the Florida Legislature took a swipe at the longstanding doctrine of “customary use” for beachfront property.
The public has always had access rights to the high-water mark on Florida’s shorelines, which is considered state-owned property. But the dry sand beyond that high-water mark is subject to private ownership — with a slight catch.
In 1974, the Florida Supreme Court ruled that while beachfront owners have property rights to the dry sandy areas behind their homes, the public is also afforded access to that beachfront area if “the recreational use of the sandy area adjacent to the mean high tide has been ancient, reasonable, without interruption and free from dispute.”
This has, from time to time, been a source of friction, especially for beachfront homes near existing public beaches or access points to the beach. Two years ago, Walton County in Florida’s Panhandle passed an ordinance affirming the customary use doctrine by specifically outlawing beachfront homeowners from putting warning signs, fencing or other obstructions on the dry sand behind their homes.
That ordinance withstood a challenge in federal court last year.
But this year, the beachfront homeowners found a friendly audience in the Florida Legislature, which set up a process that imposes new hurdles for beachgoers claiming access.
The law, opposed by the Florida Association of Counties, the Sierra Club, the Florida Wildlife Federation and the Surfrider Foundation, requires local governments to file a Complaint for Declaration of Recreational Customary Use with the circuit court in the county where the beachfront property is.
The local government will then have to go before a judge to present evidence that the recreational customary use of the beachfront has been “ancient, reasonable, without interruption and free from dispute.” And the owners of every parcel of affected beachfront land must be notified in advance and afforded 45 days after given the notice to intervene in the court proceeding.
The law, which went into effect this month, has already resulted in some beachfront homeowners attempting to shoo beachgoers. And that has created a backlash.
So much so, that Gov. Rick Scott, is now against the bill he signed in March.
“Unfortunately, the legislation has now created considerable confusion and some have even interpreted it as restricting beach access,” Scott said this month. “I’m committed to keeping our beaches open to the public and this executive order makes this commitment clear.”
What’s clear is that Scott is running for U.S. Senate, and he doesn’t want beach access to become a campaign issue.
I’ve got a simple solution. Instead of setting up a court process that is bound to tie up everybody in litigation, we should allow beachfront homeowners — who for the most part are living out of state in one of their other homes — the right to have exclusive use to all the Florida sand behind their property under one condition.
They pay for it.
Florida beaches don’t just stay in one place. The tides and storms move all that sand down the coast. It’s only through the expensive and constant pumping of new sand on the shoreline that the sandy buffer to those homes remains.
No state pays more money for beach renourishment than Florida does, according to the Reuters news service, which calculated that the state has spent $1.3 billion on restocking sand along its shoreline over the past 74 years.
The state budgets $50 million a year for beach renourishment, which doesn’t count the significant federal tax dollars it also receives for beach sand. Taxpayers all over America are paying for the sand on Florida’s beaches.
In fact, just four months ago, FEMA authorized an $8.6 million grant to restock the sand on the beaches of Jupiter Island, one of the wealthiest communities in America.
The quickest way to resolve this access issue is to give beachfront homeowners the choice:
Do you want everybody to keep chipping in for your sand or do you want an empty vista to the ocean?