Editorial: Beach access is a line in the sand that needs revisiting by Florida lawmakers

Article 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.


Adding 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.