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A sand storm of controversy is engulfing parts of Nassau County beaches. Most notably, the dry part.
The controversy has erupted from a state edict over who owns Florida beaches outside the high-water mark. More specifically, the predominantly thick sand that remains dry – out of the ocean’s reach. And the issue is whether it is public, or private, property.
While uncertainty swirls around the state ruling (known as the Beach Bill), Nassau County commissioners are acting quickly. Commissioners are soliciting notarized affidavits from residents and visitors alike to strengthen their case for preserving our beaches for public use. The affidavits detail how beachgoers use the entire beach, especially the dry sand.
Commissioners have used a fact-finding committee and public input to craft a new ordinance. They will hold a final public hearing on the ordinance at 6 p.m. Thursday, June 21. The ordinance specifies that the beaches should remain the property of the public, not of private interests.
Some 4,000 local affidavits have been signed and confirmed so far. A citizen’s movement engineered by Mac Morriss has made it convenient for people to sign affidavits. Booths, staffed by volunteers, have been spread throughout the county. Morriss is following the activities closely on the “Amelia Island Fernandina Beach Network” Facebook page he oversees.
The county plans to enact its beach ordinance by a deadline of July 1. The ordinance will hopefully provide the county with a valid argument if challenged in court. Private property owners around the state are reportedly lining up their own legal challenges.
If private owners prevail in a lawsuit, they could potentially block off the dry part of the beach bordering their properties – for their use only. Beaches within public parks or bordering public areas such as parking lots, pavilions, etc. cannot be impacted. Beach walkovers, common within Fernandina Beach and the unincorporated area of Amelia Island, cannot be blocked by a private owner.
The state’s bill came in response to several court decisions in the Florida Panhandle. State lawmakers, intending to provide clarity about beach access, seem to have muddied the topic.
Local businesses have also gotten involved in the community initiative, hosting sign-up activities or providing drop-off locations for affidavits. A tent for sign-ups or information will be set up at Peters Point Park today from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Some businesses taking part include The Patio Place and Color It Green (both in downtown Fernandina Beach), First Federal Bank in Yulee and The Pig Bar-B-Q restaurant in Callahan.
On Saturday, June 23, the group “Citizens for Public Beaches and Shores” will host a family gathering at Peters Point Park. They encourage people to bring their cameras and document their use of the entire beach.
In the meantime, affidavits can be sent by email to [email protected] or delivered in person to the County Manager’s Office (96135 Nassau Place, Yulee) or the Fernandina Beach City Clerk’s Office (204 Ash Street, 2nd Floor). Affidavits can be notarized at the County Manager’s Office or at the Fernandina Beach City Clerk’s Office.
For additional information, contact Susan Gilbert at (904) 530-6100 or Sabrina Robertson at (904) 530-6010. Affidavits will continue to be accepted until noon on June 20. Organizers hope to reach 10,000 affidavits. It is part of a united cause.
“Keep the beaches public – that’s what we want to do,” says one prominent resident.
Steve Nicklas is a financial advisor and a chartered retirement planning counselor for a regional U.S. firm who lives on Amelia Island. He is also an award-winning columnist. His business columns also appear in several newspapers in North Florida and South Georgia, and on his personal website at SteveNicklasMarketplace.com. He has published a book of his favorite columns from the last 20 years, “All About Money.” The book is available in local stores and on Amazon. He can be reached at 904-753-0236 or at [email protected].