Public beach access has become an increasingly contentious issue in Walton County. Ordinances allow customary use, which gives the public access to beaches adjacent to privately-owned beachfront property.
Review the current status of the customary use rule as well as challenges to its application.
Public land use by beach vendors
In February 2021, commissioners changed the treatment of beach vendors under the ordinance. These vendors can no longer rent or sell beach chairs and other items on privately owned, residentially zoned beach property in Walton County. On public beaches, vendors can set up only in areas with access length of at least 70 feet.
Private property owners can receive sanctions for allowing vendors on their beaches. Opponents of the change have concerns that the lack of vendors in residential areas will crowd other beach access areas.
Challenges to customary use
The passage of Florida House Bill 631 in 2020 repealed customary use, jeopardizing local public beach access for thousands of state residents and tourists. As the threat to public beaches extends beyond Walton County, advocates of public access continue to challenge HB631.
A September 2020 article in Sarasota magazine reported that about 80% of Florida’s coastline is now under private ownership. Increasing limitations on public access can potentially harm tourism in the state, impacting the livelihoods of countless state residents. Many longtime Walton County residents report new No Trespassing signs dotting the sand.
Currently, beach towns in the Panhandle and other areas of Florida can attempt to establish their own customary use laws to preserve public access. Unfortunately, challenges from private landowners have made this an uphill battle for many municipalities.