Oceanfront landowners say Florida county’s beach ban violates property rights

(The Center Square) – Oceanfront landowners are demanding a federal judge block a Walton County ordinance that made all beaches off-limits, claiming the restriction does not legally apply to private property.

Arguing they are being prevented from using their backyards, the property owners filed the lawsuit and a request for an injunction Monday in federal court in Pensacola.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis shut down beaches in three south Florida counties by executive order nearly two weeks ago, but his April 1 statewide stay-at-home directive did not shut down all state beaches, leaving that to local discretion.

Nearly all Florida governments have closed beaches to prevent potential spread of COVID-19, including Walton County, which last week passed an ordinance making beaches off-limits during the COVID-19 emergency.

The group of beachfront homeowners, which includes former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, maintain Walton County’s beach closure violates the Constitution and DeSantis’ order, which allows for activities such as walking, fishing and swimming.

“The amended ordinance purports to be designed to ‘prevent the spread of COVID-19’ yet it has the opposite effect,” the lawsuit contends. “The amended ordinance prevents the plaintiffs, many of whom own residences along the beach, from utilizing their own backyards to quarantine or stay safe at home.”

The lawsuit alleges Walton County’s beach ban is an unconstitutional “taking” of private property without compensation and violates privacy and due process rights.

“The chances of a family or landowner catching or spreading COVID-19 is far less in his or her own private backyard (where no one else should be less they be trespassing) than traveling to the grocery store or hardware store or other essential business,” the suit states.

Florida law stipulates privately owned beach property ends at the mean high-water line, a matter of dispute by the very same group of waterfront landowners since 2016, when Walton County adopted an ordinance recognizing the public’s use of its coast for fishing and recreation through “customary use.”

Walton County became a battleground over public-beach access with private land advocates convincing lawmakers in 2018 to adopt House Bill 631, which expanded the rights of beach-front property owners to claim beach ownership to the water’s edge rather than the customary high-water mark, preempting local governments from enforcing the public’s customary use of beaches.

The landowners since have been battling with open-access advocates, including Santa Rosa County lawyer and former Florida Beaches for All attorney Daniel Uhlfelder, who has called Huckabee a “beach thief.”

Huckabee filed a bar complaint against Uhlfelder in December, accusing him of using social media to post “vile and unprofessional attacks” and “repeatedly posting disparaging information about me.”

While Huckabee and fellow landowners are suing to open beaches in federal court, Uhlfelder and fellow attorney Gaultier Kitchen are suing DeSantis in state court to issue a statewide beach closure order.

A Scripps Institution researcher recently warned governments should make all beaches off-limits and ensure people stay off of them.

Atmospheric chemist Kim Prather, director of Scripps Institution of Oceanography’s Center for Aerosol Impacts on Chemistry and the Environment in La Jolla, Calif., told The Associated Press she fears coronavirus is filtering into coastal waters similar to the way bacteria, pathogens and effluent do after heavy rains.

The ocean’s tidal sway and shifting currents churn particulate and microscopic pathogens that are aerosolized atop shore-broken waves and sprayed into the air on the beach, she said, far beyond the 6-foot social distancing protocol.

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