Courtesy of The Herald-Tribune Editorial Board
Published January 28, 2020
The beach belongs, by law, to the people of Florida — the
part that gets wet, that is; the part where you should not leave your towel
and expect it to be there when you come back from a swim, unless you’re a
highly competent student of the tide tables.
This is because the
idea of the seashore as belonging to “the public trust” is
grounded in an era before anyone ever considered sunbathing
or swimming in the Atlantic Ocean or Gulf of Mexico. In
fact, the thought of paddling alongside sharks and other sea
creatures was pretty terrifying. So the “mean high tide
line” as a designation of where the public could freely roam
was intended for boaters and fishermen.
As our idea of a good time changed, the “public trust
doctrine” was expanded to embrace new kinds of seaside
activity. And Florida evolved into the tourism dynamo that
it is today, with beaches and their constant hunger for
re-nourishment as a powerful part of that economic engine.
But because the expansion of rights was never done in a way
that made sense, this illogical and variable line in the
sand has never failed to spark tension.
And so we get periodic local skirmishes between property
owners who like their Gulf views unobstructed by the rabble
in unsightly swimwear, and beach lovers who like their
strolls along the sand unobstructed by unsightly barriers
and “no trespassing” signs. Palm Beach County has had at
least one past dispute that left a private beach roped off.
In 2015, residents at the Palm Worth condo building north of
Kreusler Park put down yellow rope outlining the condo’s
private beach during an easement dispute. Condo owners also
complained of homeless people camping near the dunes, kids
playing soccer on the beach, fishermen, dogs, trash and
alcohol in their beach area.
A Siesta Key property owner has erected a barricade
along a popular public beach access to discourage people from
walking on the beach in front of the house.
consternation and confusion to this political milieu, the Florida
Legislature passed and then-Gov. Rick Scott unfortunately signed a law in
2018 making it much harder for local governments to “ensure the public’s
right to reasonable access to beaches,” as they are required to do by
Florida statute. The law, HB 631, shifted the burden of proof from property
owners, who can now more easily erect barriers and eject “trespassers”. And
local officials cannot designate the area for public access without first
holding public hearings and going before a judge.
After a Facebook posting of Panhandle sheriff’s deputies confronting
beachgoers, Scott then compounded the ill-fated error with a ham-handed
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.
The Florida Legislature should finally step in and fix this confounding
mess. One that they helped exacerbate.
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 should have been
shelved, and then repealed. But subsequent bills filed to do the latter
couldn’t get a hearing in the legislature -- because a primary sponsor of HB
631, Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, is Senate president and he will have
not of it.
Meanwhile, some 60 percent of Florida’s beaches front private lands, and
even renourishment projects funded by taxpayers do not guarantee their
access. While it may not be realistic to expect our current legislators to
privilege public recreation over private property ownership, it remains
their responsibility to resolve a host of coastal challenges that will be
compounded by the rise in sea levels. As more beaches wash away, individual
landowners are unlikely to see this loss as theirs alone.
Floridians’ access to our beaches must be made a priority in the process of
addressing climate change, and more clarity on the “public trust doctrine”
would be a useful, long-overdue result.