Judge launches legal action to block beach access


A Walton County circuit judge on Monday dismissed a challenge to long-standing legal precedent that allows the public to use private beaches.

Private property owners in Walton County have sued the county for allowing “customary use” of their beaches, arguing that the precedent is unconstitutionally vague and violates their private property rights. Customary use, or the position that beaches that have historically been used by the public may remain accessible, is based on a 1974 Florida Supreme Court decision and is official Walton County policy.

Judge David Green issued a decision rejecting the arguments of the plaintiffs – Northshore Holdings, LLC and Lavin Family Development, LLC – which were presented at trial on March 11. He wrote that the plaintiffs had failed to provide sufficient grounds to show that the 1974 decision was unconstitutional.

According to Northwest Florida Daily News.

Previously, emergency responders had 15 feet of space reserved near the beach dunes to respond to emergencies. But the county changed the rule to allow space 15 feet closer to the waterline on private property where there is a public use issue amid the legal dispute.

County commissioners, however, have been advised that bringing emergency vehicles closer to water lines could be hazardous to swimmers.

At the time of the ordinance change, three of four drownings on the county’s 26 miles of beaches were on private sections at least half a mile from the nearest public watchtower. These types of incidents require vehicle access to private beaches.

DeFuniak Springs Lawyer Adkinson clay, who was advising change, told first responders not to worry about where they were driving if they were responding to an emergency.

“I’m going to say right now, if it takes crossing someone’s property to save someone’s life, go for it. We will deal with it in court,” Adkinson said.

Following Monday’s decision, the precaution of riding near the water line should no longer be necessary, regardless of the consent of private parties.

After Monday’s decision, the county attorney David Theriaque applauded the decision.

“This decision is an important step in keeping Walton County beaches free and accessible to residents and guests,” Theriaque said.

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