Coastal Confusion: Florida Public Beach Access

Another Florida storm has blown up on the radar, gaining strength when HB 631 passed. In the minds of many, a “cone of uncertainty,” has formed around public use of Florida’s beaches.

A storm of confusion is swirling about public beach access.

Hurricanes Matthew and Irma in the past two years whipped up wind and waves, eroded beachfront, and damaged homes, businesses, docks and piers around Florida.

Now another Florida storm has blown up on the radar, gaining strength when HB 631, “Possession of Real Property,” passed (to start July 1, 2018). In the minds of many, a “cone of uncertainty,” has formed around public use of Florida’s beaches.

Public Backlash

The “Beach Bill” has whipped up the intensity of a “Cat 4” backlash on social media. HB 631 is misunderstood by some, and like all controversial topics being “discussed” on social media, plenty of posts and comments are misleading, false, and divisive.

Guarding The Beach, Amelia Island Summer Season 2018
Guarding The Beach, Amelia Island Summer Season 2018

Florida’s state constitution protects public right to access the beach statewide in Florida via public beach access points that include state, city, county and federal beach parks. 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 use the “dry sand” in public parks. People can also walk along the beach, roam or sit anywhere from water’s edge up to the mean high tide line, along the entirety of the state’s coastline, including in front of private beachfront properties.

“Dry Sand” Near Private Property

HB 631 (that starts July 1, 2018), adds some procedural changes, and has triggered confusion about the “dry sand” adjacent to private properties on the beach. (See the Florida Senate summary of HB 631 here.)

An advocate of public beach access, some may like to read a Surfrider Foundation’s post, “Customary Use Doctrine Continues to Allow Beach Access in Florida”, published April 11, 2018. An excerpt states “The law regarding custom ultimately remains the same.” HB 631 “doesn’t provide beachfront property owners with any new rights; they still cannot block public beach access where a custom of beach access has previously existed.” Read the full opinion by Staley Prom, on the legal team at the Surfrider Foundation.

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

“Better Safe Than Sorry”

Both the city of Fernandina Beach and Nassau County are moving forward with “customary use” ordinances before July 1, 2018. Some view the extra efforts as sort of a public access insurance policy, just in case any private property owner decides to try to claim “dry sand” through judicial process. If a private property owner takes the issue to court in the future, both the city and county will be prepared to challenge any such attempt. According to HB 631, “a governmental entity may raise the customary use as an affirmative defense in a proceeding challenging an ordinance or rule adopted before July 1, 2018.”   UPDATE : The city of Fernandina Beach and Nassau County both passed “customary use” ordinances prior to July 1st.

City Vs. County Vs. State Beachfront

Every public beach park and all public beach entry/exit access points crossing the dunes to the beaches of Amelia Island are open to all. Visitors may not realize that Amelia Island’s beachfront, depending on location, is city property vs. county property (hence, two “customary use” ordinances in the works), vs. Florida state beachfront. The tips of the island are miles of Florida State Park beaches, Fort Clinch on the north end, Amelia Island State Park on the south end.(See links further below to the city of Fernandina Beach and Nassau County’s online commission meetings that can be watched online, with comments by the city and county attorneys, addressing HB 631).

Private Property & Customary Use

The Fernandina Beach city commission has approved, at the first reading, code amendment “Customary Use of Beaches and Public Access (Ordinance 2018-14).” Another public hearing is scheduled for June 26, 2018 for a second reading.

Nassau County is also in the process of documenting the historic “customary use” of “dry sand” areas for recreation above the mean high water line near private property, to help ensure and protect continued future public use of “dry sand” beach areas at private properties, for generations to come.

Nassau County formed a Customary Use of Beach Fact Finding Committee, and issued a news release stating “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.” Community groups and individual volunteers are facilitating the collection and notarization of affidavits with a goal of 10,000. Read further below, with link to the online affidavits you can print and where to submit them.The public hearings of the county ordinance are scheduled for June 11th and June 21st, 2018.

City’s View

Officials of the city of Fernandina Beach appeared to be confident that “dry sand” adjacent to private properties within the city limits is already 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. Watch the city meeting, it can be viewed online, and hear the city’s attorney discussion about this issue. Go to the city’s website and look down the list, then CLICK ON ITEM 11, CITY ATTORNEY REPORTS.

Nassau County

Watch county attorney, Mike Mullin, and county commissioners at board meeting on May 2, 2018, discussing State HB 631. This County board meeting and upcoming meetings are also available online to watch by visiting the website of Nassau County, Florida.Nassau County is also re-surveying county beachfront, marking the Erosion Control Lines and photographing east and west of these points.

Resident & Tourist Affidavits

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. Of the most interest are photographs showing historic use (the older, the better), of “dry sand” areas adjacent to private property. Private properties along the beach include oceanfront beach homes, inns, hotels, restaurants, and condominium buildings. Get the blank affidavit online by clicking here, and submit one whether you live here or not. The deadline to submit affidavits keeps being bumped, last revised to June 20, 2018, but may be extended further. Besides local residents, visitors who have frequented Amelia Island’s beaches in the past, can also participate. Submit a notarized affidavit (or an affidavit plus photos) online via eMail to: [email protected]. 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.

Those with questions or needing more info about the affidavits can call Susan Gilbert at (904) 530-6100.

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 one area at this writing (June 7, 2018), 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. UPDATE: The signs have been removed since June 7, 2018.

By The Editor

Observations of island life, news & opinion by W.B. Lawson. Wendy has enjoyed the laid-back Amelia Island lifestyle since 1993. Her professional background began at a newspaper in NY. She then worked in PR/Investor Relations at Fortune 500 company, and later became a managing editor at an equity research publishing firm. She was Series 7 licensed while with Merrill Lynch Private Client Group.