Coastal Confusion: Florida Public Beach Access

Florida State HB 631 Starts July 1, 2018

A storm of confusion is swirling about public beach access.

Matthew and Irma in the past two years whipped up wind and waves, eroded beachfront, smashed Amelia Island’s only publicly-accessible Atlantic coast pier (the damaged Fort Clinch pier was removed), and took out much of the downtown Fernandina Harbor Marina.

But now another storm is brewing both locally and elsewhere in Florida about public beach access. It blew up on the radar when State HB 631, “Possession of Real Property,” passed (to start July 1, 2018).

In the minds of many, a “cone of uncertainty,” has formed around the public use of the “dry sand” portion of the beachfront landward of the mean high water line in areas of privately-owned beach property.

Public Backlash

The thought that some areas of Florida’s beachfront commonly used by the public in the past, might possibly become off limits (IF private property owners try to exclude people), has whipped up the intensity of a “Cat 3” backlash on social media.

And, like all controversial topics being discussed on social media, there appears to be lots of misleading posts and comments about HB 631, and then inaccurate information is spread by “sharing.” The confusion is not just localized, but happening elsewhere around the Sunshine State.

“Dry Sand” Issue

Florida’s state constitution protects public right to access the beach statewide in Florida via public beach access points that include state parks, city and county public beach parks. This public beach access is not in jeopardy. The public can continue to access the beach through public beach access entry points and public beach parks. After entering the beach through these public access areas, people can also walk along the beach, roam or sit anywhere from water’s edge up to the mean high tide line, along the state’s coastline, including in front of private beachfront properties.

So what’s changed recently? A new Florida state law, HB 631, that starts July 1, 2018, adds some procedural changes and will prohibit local governments from implementing “customary use” ordinances. (Read the Florida Senate summary of HB 631 here.)

The Tampa Bay Times published a good explanation of “customary use” in an article by Craig Pittman (dated April 4, 2018), as follows:

“Beach access ordinances are based on a legal principle called customary use, defined as the traditional use of dry beach sand for public recreation, even on private property. The Florida Supreme Court has ruled that if a private property owner tries to put up a fence or calls police to eject beachgoers who have been using the beach for years, the local government can cite customary use to allow the public to remain — but only if such use has been “ancient, reasonable, without interruption and free from dispute.”

Nassau County Coastline Looking North Along Summer Beach
Nassau County Coastline Looking North Along Summer Beach

The Beach

Amelia Island’s beachfront has areas that are city property (mid-ish island continuing north with public parks at Seaside/Sadler Rd., Main Beach, and North Beach). Plus county property further south with large public beach parks at Peters Point and Burney Park/American Beach. Much of the largest chunks of privately-owned oceanfront property with Homeowner Associations is within the county (not the city). Separately, the tips of the island are Florida State beaches (Fort Clinch on the north end, Amelia Island State Park on the south end).

“Better Safe Than Sorry”

There’s a June 2018 sprint to get a “customary use” ordinance passed in the county before this type of ordinance is prohibited beginning July 1, 2018. Nassau County is moving forward to implement a new beach ordinance to further establish the history of “customary use” of dry sand areas for recreation above the mean high water line during the past, to help ensure and protect continued future public use of “dry sand” beach areas at private properties, for generations to come.

Nassau County is asking for public input, seeking 10,000 affidavits from the public by June 20, 2018 at noon, to help further document and establish historic, customary “dry sand” use. Nassau County has formed a Customary Use of Beach Fact Finding Committee, and stated “based on the passage of State HB 631 (Beach Bill), Nassau County is asking for testimony and documentary evidence as to the customary and historic use of the “dry sand” areas of beaches within unincorporated Nassau County.” Read more info about this further below, with online link to the affidavits you can print and where to submit them.

City’s View

Officials of the city of Fernandina Beach appear to be confident that “dry sand” adjacent to private properties within the city limits is owned by the city (apparently due to past city actions utilizing easements and eminent domain). The city government of Fernandina Beach recently discussed HB 631 at a public meeting on June 5, 2018. Fernandina’s Mayor, Johnny Miller, posted on his Facebook page (June 6, 2018), “There is still a lot of misunderstanding and misinformation regarding SB631 and public access to our beach. Our city attorney went over this again at last night’s meeting and updated the latest actions.” The meeting can be viewed online to hear the city’s attorney discussion, go to the city’s website and look down the list, then CLICK ON ITEM 11, CITY ATTORNEY REPORTS.

Nassau County

What area of the county’s beachfront may be more “susceptible to being roped off?” According to a statement made by county attorney, Mike Mullin, during a county board meeting on May 2, 2018 about State HB 631, mentioned was “north of about Lewis Street.” This County board meeting and others are also available online to watch by visiting the website of Nassau County, Florida.

Private Property Extends To Mean High Water Seaward Of This Sign
Private Property Extends To Mean High Water Seaward Of This Sign, at Carlton Dunes

Note that in at least one area at this writing, within the county portion of Amelia Island’s beachfront along private property, at the Carlton Dunes, a few signs (pictured above) can be seen along the eroded dune line fronting seven condo buildings. This private beachfront property is next door to Peters Point, on the south side of the public park.

How Residents & Tourists Can Help

If you have used the “dry sand” area of the beach in areas of private property in the past, you can inform Nassau County, by submitting a NOTARIZED affidavit. You can also provide photographs showing historic use. Get the blank affidavit online by clicking here, and submit one whether you live here or not. To repeat, the deadline to submit affidavits is June 20, 2018 at noon. Besides local residents, visitors who have frequented Amelia Island’s beaches in the past, can also help. Submit a notarized affidavit (or an affidavit plus photos). You can submit notarized affidavit and photos online via eMail to: contact@nassaucountyfl.com. Via snail mail post office, send to: Nassau County Manager’s Office, 96135 Nassau Place, Yulee, FL 32097. Or bring an affidavit in person to be notarized for free by visiting local government offices:

— County Manager’s Office located at 96135 Nassau Place, Yulee.
— Fernandina Beach City Clerk’s Office at 204 Ash Street, 2nd Floor in downtown Fernandina.

If you have any questions or need more info concerning the affidavits, call Susan Gilbert at (904) 530-6100.

Beach Etiquette

Not all people show respect for the privilege of public beach access. Anyone can arrive, park for free at city and county beach access parking lots, and use Amelia Island’s beaches. There are some thoughtless people who leave their trash in the sand when they depart. Some bring dogs and don’t pick up the crap. Some ignore the dog leash law at city and county beach parks and elsewhere along the beachfront. Rowdiness, trash and drinking alcohol has been in the news in recent months at Peters Point.

Tent Pitched In Dunes, Burney Park, American Beach 5-12-2018
Tent Pitched In Dunes, Burney Park, American Beach 5-12-2018

Some place sun shelters, beach umbrellas, chairs on the beach and leave them overnight (not following the “carry on, carry off” ordinance requiring all beach gear to be removed from the beaches by 8 pm).

Sometimes people camp overnight, pitching tents in the environmentally sensitive sea oats. Pictured is such a tent seen last month at American Beach/Burney Park. This particular camper was approached by a county Sheriff, told she could be fined $10,000. She said she did not know, there were no signs. While normally there’s a big sign, she was right about the lack of signage on this day. The large wooden frame that normally holds the beach ordinance sign was empty, (the sign has been missing for awhile).

More and more people are on the beaches with growth of county population plus tourism growth. Besides the growth of Nassau County residents, when adding up overnight tourist stays plus day trippers who are within driving range, plus people visiting and staying with friends and family here, an estimated million people visit Amelia Island annually.

Trashing The Beach

Many Additional Trash Cans Installed In Sand Peters Point
Many Additional Trash Cans Installed In Sand, Looking North at Peters Point

Along with growth is more garbage and problems at the beachfront, stressing both the natural resource — the beach — plus manpower such as law enforcement, heightening the need for additional beach patrols, and ocean rescue lifeguards and personnel. There’s been more noticeable police presence in recent months at the beachfront.

During the last month, a bunch of new, bright blue garbage cans have been installed in the dry sand above the mean high tide line along the beachfront. There’s six new trash cans along American Beach plus at least that many more additional garbage cans in the vicinity of Peter’s Point. It appears the county was trying to help fix the trash on the beach issue. However, when looking along the beachscape, now it’s marred by ugly garbage cans.

Fixed Supply & Growing Demand

Besides local growth, statewide, Florida’s population is now estimated at over 21 million people (the third most populous US state). Plus record numbers of tourists are visiting the Sunshine State — 88.2 million last year. This seems to set the stage for potential growth of disputes when private property rights clash with use by “the people,” around Florida’s coastline.

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