Citizens rising up against the Florida Legislature, Gov. Rick Scott, and private property zealots

September 17, 2018 7:00 am

Cartoon by Andy Marlette, Pensacola News Journal

There’s a citizen uprising happening in the Panhandle’s Walton County. So far, about 8,000 people have signed sworn affidavits asserting that they use the beaches there. Probably not a single one of them thought they’d have to sign a legal document to prove they go to the beach – in their beach town.

About the biggest regional controversy used to be whether you ought to wear closed-toe shoes instead of flip flops to a wedding.

That was before Walton County got discovered by the mega-mansion crowd. So now, the grassroots effort to save the best of a good Florida place has begun. Because of an obnoxious law passed by the state Legislature (which targets Walton County specifically), locals are now fighting for public access to beaches they’ve enjoyed for generations.

“I moved here when I was six years old,” says Walton County Commissioner Tony Anderson. “My mama was an avid pompano fisherman. I have chased sand fleas up and down this beach. I’ve literally walked all 26 miles of beach here in my 63 years. I’ve crabbed, fished, and camped.”

A recent county commission meeting to discuss the issue was filled to bursting – some 800-1,000 attended. Residents have formed a new nonprofit group, Florida Beaches for All  and a slogan #StandYourSand.

The troublesome state beach access law at issue was pushed by some Gulf-front property owners, including, as it turns out, a famous one: former Arkansas governor, past presidential candidate and Fox News darling Mike Huckabee.

Huckabee has a house on the beach in Walton County, and he doesn’t want the riff-raff in front of his place, playing Frisbee, letting their dogs run around, and hanging beach towels on his sand fence, he explained in an email he sent to a Republican South Florida state senator who helped push the bill, Kathleen Passidomo. Huckabee explains he’s just spent 18 hours flying back from Qatar (I’d like to know quite a bit more about that), but monitored the legislative committee meeting on the Internet and wants to thank her for the beach access bill.

About that bill – which became law July 1. You may remember the viral video this summer which showed a couple of Walton County sheriff’s deputies trying to show a beachgoer where he was allowed to sit on the beach. They literally had to draw a line in the sand. The beachgoer was local attorney Daniel Uhlfelder, who set up chairs in front of a condo complex, and someone called the Walton Sheriff’s Department. Deputies told Uhlfelder and his friend they were trespassing. Uhlfelder and one of the deputies walked towards the Gulf and drew a line. The “public” area they identify is in the wet sand along the wave break line – pretty much in the Gulf.

Walton County Sherriff Mike Adkinson told the Phoenix that he doesn’t want to arrest beachgoers, and that the Legislature needs to fix the confusing new state law ASAP. “It puts us in a horrible situation,” he said.

The trouble goes back a few years, when some Walton County waterfront homeowners started putting up ‘No trespassing’ signs to keep regular people from sitting on the beach in front of their condos and houses. This was a shock to locals. Florida has long abided by “customary use” of our beachfront, meaning folks have been using the beaches for decades. Most Florida counties have a customary use law to ensure public access, but Walton County didn’t, so the county commission passed one in mid-2016.

That’s when private-property-rights zealots hired lobbyists to go to the Legislature to circumvent the local county commission’s wishes. They ended up with the stealthy H.B. 631, which passed during the 2018 legislative session and Gov. Rick Scott signed it into law.

The law put a target on Walton County’s back, because it said any county that had a customary use law in effect on or before January 2016 could keep its law, and thus keep the status quo allowing public beach access. Except Walton County hadn’t passed its law by that date, and those pushing to close public beach access knew that. Walton County was now purposefully teed up to be a property rights test case.

“I’m very offended that Walton County was singled out,” Commissioner Anderson says. “This is just a disaster for Walton County. We have four million visitors a year. We’ve heard about visitors who came this year and were treated shabbily and they are not coming back.”

When news of the new law went public, Gov. Scott – Oh He of the Election-year Environmental Awakening – issued an Executive Order which “urges counties to protect public beach access.”

Except Scott’s executive order is not a law, so it doesn’t count. “Unfortunately the governor can’t nullify the law,” explained Sheriff Adkinson.

Scott  – who is running for U.S. Senate against Bill Nelson – hilariously ducked out of his own campaign stop Sept. 9 at a Walton County restaurant after his jittered staffers saw some gray-haired protesters waiting.  “He’s scared of little old ladies in tennis shoes,” one of the sign-holders told the Tampa Bay Times. One protest sign which must have peeved the Scott camp: “Republicans for Bill Nelson.”

Now a new chapter in the fight for Walton County beaches begins: In November, the Walton County Commission plans to vote on a new customary use ordinance, to try to put things back the way they were before the Legislature and Gov. Scott mucked them up. The lawsuits against Walton County from the property rights camp will begin again, and the county will have to pay handsomely to defend its right to keep public access on beaches.

“It’s going to be expensive, but it’s going to be more expensive to lose this case. Losing access to our beaches could be a total meltdown of our economy,” Commissioner Anderson says.

There’s a lot to unpack in the whiny email that Huckabee sent to the state legislator, begging her for help to keep the plebeians away from his castle, but I’ll share a few choice nuggets:

“This,” he writes, “should not be a political decision based on popularity…” (just let that sink in for a minute, all you non-monarchs) “but a legal decision based on the Constitutional premise of private property rights, the very foundation of liberty.”

Huckabee explains that he grew up “dirt poor” in Arakansas, and “never thought I would see salt water in person, much less live on a beach.” He says he gives to church, and to charity “and certainly to Walton County!”

His beef, he explains, is that beachfront owners are “demonized as ‘greedy, selfish, and rich’ owners who want to deprive the poor of their rights.”

Lemme think a minute. Do they have that old saying in Arkansas? The one about the pot and the kettle? I think they do.

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Julie Hauserman
Julie Hauserman

Julie Hauserman has been writing about Florida for more than 30 years. She is a former Capitol bureau reporter for the St. Petersburg (Tampa Bay) Times, and reported for The Stuart News and the Tallahassee Democrat. She was a national commentator for National Public Radio’s Weekend Edition Sunday and The Splendid Table . She has won many awards, including two nominations for the Pulitzer Prize. Her work is featured in several Florida anthologies, including The Wild Heart of Florida , The Book of the Everglades , and Between Two Rivers . Her new book is Drawn to The Deep, a University Press of Florida biography of Florida cave diver and National Geographic explorer Wes Skiles.