The debate over customary vs private beach access in Destin and properties along the Emerald Coast is becoming more and more heated. Walton and Okaloosa Counties have miles of beach and how much of this should be designated public or "customary use" needs to be determined. For years, Destin beachfront property has been developed into magnificent resorts, homes, and condos, but now it's time to decide how much of that land is for private use only, and how much can be open to the public.
For city officials, this is a sensitive area where enforcement is not a straightforward task. As a result, they've employed the services of a law firm to decide whether a claim of customary use in Walton County will stand up. However, this type of research takes time, but in the interim, frustration is building for both home owners and beach goers. This weekend, a group of Destin residents walked the beach as a peaceful protest against "No Trespassing" signs posted by beachfront home owners.
There are two very distinct sides to this argument:
The Customary Use Argument
Customary use assumes that even though a section of the beach might be privately owned, the public has the right to access the beach. In the past, it was meant for hunting and fishing, now it is more for personal enjoyment and recreation. Is it right to cut off access to tourists or residents who have walked the beaches for years? The customary use ordinance says that landowners must share the beaches with the public. Currently this isn't being enforced.
Waterfront home owners have paid good money for beautiful beachfront properties along the Scenic 30A with the understanding that they actually own a chunk of private beach. For the most part, most are really good about allowing folks to access their property as people walk the beaches. But, a few bad apples have abused the privilege by leaving garbage, or used the area to party. Some owners are just concerned about the controversy, and as a result are getting protective, even stringing up "No Trespassing" signs.
For condos and hotels, many feel the need to rope off their area, ensuring that only their guests can access the private beach they've advertised in their brochures. They'll load up the area with chairs, post a "reserved for residents and guests only" sign. Most of the time the chairs sit empty. This is a common complaint in the Seaside beaches.
Finding a Middle Ground
Are the developers doing buyers a disservice by advertising property with "private beach access"? Perhaps the concept of customary use should be written in the deed when a property is purchased - but that is a decision for the courts. It goes beyond city ordinances.
This is one of those cases where the county has to make some uncomfortable decisions. Basically, they're "damned if they do, and damned if they don't". Support the customary use ordinance by giving local folks and tourists free run of the beaches will impact private homeowners or developments with private beach access. Ideally, they'll be able to meet somewhere in the middle, and try to keep both ends happy.
In the meantime, everyone awaits the result of a third party study. The city has voted to retain David Theriaque, Theriaque and Spain, Attorneys at Law, to represent the County to research, explore and analyze historical beach use data and determine the degree such historical data would or would not support a claim of customary use by Walton County; develop, or provide guidance in developing appropriate mechanisms to improve public access and use of Walton County beaches.
Read the next installment on the beach access series "Beachfront "No Trespassing" Signs Coming Down in Walton County" that addresses new ordinances allowing county by-law enforcers to remove all the signs and ropes homeowners have placed on their beachfront properties.
We'd love to hear your thoughts on this. Are you in support of the customary use designation? Should private owners allow the public beach access? What's your solution? Is there a middle ground that will keep everyone happy?
Tim Shepard, Broker/Owner
Destin Real Estate, LLC
Cell: (850) 259-4133
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