On July 1, just before hounds of tourists descend upon the beaches up and down the Atlantic and Gulf coasts of Florida for the Fourth of July, a new bill, signed into law by Gov. Rick Scott last week could potentially prompt private owners of beachfront homes, condominiums or hotels to restrict the public from enjoying a coastal holiday.
Bluntly named "The Possession of Real Property" Bill, HB 631 was sponsored by representatives Katie Edwards Walpole (D- Plantation) and Senator Kathleen Passidomo (R- Naples). The bill's passage means that it may be increasingly difficult for local governments throughout the state of Florida to protect beach access. Section 10 of the bill, specifically restricts local governments from passing local customary use ordinances—which open up beaches for general public use—directly, making it so a court must ratify such a declaration.
Florida law already maintains private property of beachfront owners up to the mean high-water line, but according to Holly Parker, Regional Manager of Florida for Surfrider Foundation, the bill enacts a new process for opening up beach accesses to the public, potentially threatening local economies heavily dependant on tourists who visit these region's beaches.
According to Parker, in the past, a property owner who wished to restrict access had to take the matter up in court. Once HB 631 takes effect, however, it'll be up to the local governments to apply for and enact ordinances to allow for public access.
Will private beachfront property owners begin roping off, or kicking people off Florida Beaches? It remains to be seen, but property owners, aside from those in Volusia and St. Johns County—where beach access ordinances already exist—can, if so inclined. And then it'll be up to local governments to intervene.
"I question whether city officials will have the stomach to combat wealthy property owners who may seek to restrict beach access," says Parker. Opponents of the bill, including The Sierra Club, the Florida Wildlife Federation, and representative from forty Surfrider chapters from across the Sunshine State visited Tallahassee to speak against the bill and meet with their local legislators.
But with Gov. Scott's signature, the bill passed, and beginning July 1 a new chapter in the battle for public beach access in Florida will begin.