County urges state lawmakers to keep beaches open

The Indian River County Commission has weighed in against bills that have been introduced in the Florida Legislature that could allow owners of oceanfront houses to bar the public from the beach in front of their homes.

Commissioners voted unanimously to send a letter to legislators in Tallahassee stating that all 24 miles of the county’s ocean beaches should remain accessible to the public.

According to the Florida Constitution, in accordance with traditional common-law understandings of property rights, beachfront property owners do not actually own the beaches. Article X, section 11 of the constitution states, “The title to lands under navigable waters, within the boundaries of the state, which have not been alienated, including beaches below mean high water lines, is held by the state, by virtue of its sovereignty, in trust for all the people.”

Three counties among the 67 in Florida – Volusia, St. John’s and Walton – also currently have laws on the books proclaiming beaches must be accessible to the public under the “Customary Use Doctrine,” which asserts the public’s long and historic use of beaches establishes a right of continued use over and above any private interest.

State Rep. Katie Edwards-Walpole, a Democrat representing Lakeland who is sponsoring House Bill 631, and State Senator Kathleen Passidomo, a Naples Republican who is the sponsor of Senate Bill 804, don’t want other counties to pass similar ordinances.

Both bills would prohibit local governments from proclaiming customary use of its beaches and mandate that customary usage be determined parcel by parcel by the courts.

The issue has become contentious because in some parts of Florida, private landowners – from residents to posh clubs and restaurants –  have at times erected “no trespassing” signs and put up barriers to keep residents and visitors off their beaches.

After Walton County passed its ordinance affirming public access in 2017, a property owner sued to overturn the law but a judge ruled in the county’s favor, supporting home-rule powers over private property rights. That ruling is now being appealed in federal court.

Indian River County argues in its letter that the county needs to retain its power to pass laws to enforce customary use because, “Florida’s beaches are essential to both economic development and tourism . . . [and because the law] could undermine beach restoration programs across the State of Florida and here locally in Indian River County.”

County Coastal Engineer James Gray said millions in local and state funds are spent on beach replenishment. Skipping private land wouldn’t work, he said. “It would destroy the engineering,” just as a missing tooth weakens adjacent teeth.

“Should local governments and the State of Florida continue to use tax-dollar funds on beach restoration projects for the public’s benefit knowing that the public access could be denied as soon as an impacted parcel is sold to a private-fee holder?” the letter asks.

In a final appeal, the county letter asks, “What happens when a private property owner restricts permitted sea turtle monitors’ access to a section of beach that has had a recent nest?”

The Florida Association of Counties Director of External Affairs Cragin Mosteller said the organization is lobbying against the legislation. Florida League of Cities lobbyist David Cruz said his group is letting the counties “take the lead” while it monitors the situation, but added that his organization too opposes the legislation.

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