Editorial: Bury confusing beach access law in the sand


The political cliché “It’s the economy, stupid,” comes to mind. In this case one might substitute: “beaches.”

Gov. Rick Scott managed to threaten the foundation of Florida’s economy by signing into law House Bill 631, limiting beach access, effective July 1.

RELATED: Palm Beach County residents fear beach access will be cut off after new law

Our “environmental governor” then compounded the error with his ham-handed July 19 executive order, trying to moonwalk away by basically telling local authorities not to enforce the property rights measure.

The result is confusion and frustration for residents from Palm Beach County to the Panhandle, and particularly the millions of economy boosting visitors, for whom the state’s prime attraction – 825 miles of Atlantic Ocean, Gulf of Mexico and Intracoastal Waterway sand and surf – is secondary only to its subtropical climate.

Imagine being a Florida native enjoying free access to this unique public asset all one’s life, now being told one is trespassing on it. Perhaps worse is to be a tourist, drawn specifically by the prospect of enjoying these much-marketed, world-renowned shores, now being told you can face arrest because what you thought was public beach is now somehow private.

This affront to Florida residents and tourists alike needs to be shelved, and then repealed.

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It seems like forever, before Scott stepped in it, that this used to be simple: The Florida Constitution guarantees that every inch of Florida’s beaches is public land up to the average high water line, namely, the wet sand.

Comes now this new law, the first of its kind in the country, voiding the public’s traditional “customary use” of dry sand. Instead, it allows property owners to claim the dry sand — where the beach is narrow — in front of their homes as private property. And local officials cannot designate the area for public access without first holding public hearings and going before a judge.

The law has recklessly escalated tensions, especially in places such as the Panhandle, where property owners have called private security officers and sheriff deputies on beachgoers the owners claimed were trespassing on legally purchased land.

Credit the Walton County Commission for vowing in June “to fight the efforts to deprive the public of their long-held rights to the sandy portions of the beach.” But a recent viral video of sheriff’s deputies explaining that a man should leave part of a beach there illustrates the frustration wrought by the governor’s action. Some regular visitors already are saying they won’t return.

This bad law, and Scott’s further mishandling of the customary use issues, “is yet another example of how Rick Scott will do or say anything to get elected,” the Florida Democratic Party said in an easy yet apt criticism.

Well, he also had some Democratic help. Republican Sen. Kathleen Passidomo’s bill, SB 804, which merged with HB 631, did pass 29 to 7 in the Senate and 95 to 17 in the House. Still, rather than an appropriately thoughtful veto, Scott quickly signed it in March.

This is exactly the type of problem a governor should be expected to eliminate, rather than foster, for a state’s citizens and visitors from around the world.

Instead, Scott bowed to the interests that got the measure overwhelmingly passed, with the clearly intended consequence of allowing beachfront owners to kick people off sandy property contrary to customary use.

“I’m committed to keeping our beaches open to the public and this executive order makes this commitment clear,” the governor now says, telling counties “to protect public beach access” after the “considerable confusion” he caused. The state Department of Environmental Protection must create a website for reporting access problems, he says, and governments shouldn’t take any further steps to restrict it.

These steps, of course, should have happened first.

Says Passidomo: “This law is a process law that gives local governments the tools they need to expand public beach access where, before, it was the wild west, where lawsuits were flying. If the public wants to access a private beach, they can do so, as long as the court approves it.”

But in Florida, beach is life. This is the last state in the nation that should have produced such a measure. And when it passed, Scott should have protected the state’s vital economic interests, rather than injecting “considerable confusion” by signing it.

Instead, leadership from this governor again has proved as elusive and slippery as trying to hold onto a fistful of sand and water.



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