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Palm Coast Monday, May 7, 2018 4 months ago

County takes action to protect public beach access in face of state legislative change

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The commission passed an ordinance to establish the public's 'customary use' of the beach.
by: Jonathan Simmons News Editor

Flagler County is fighting to keep its beaches open to the public — even above the high-water line.

The County Commission in a unanimous vote at its May 7 meeting approved an ordinance establishing that the public has a “customary use” right to the beach for activities like beach walking, sunbathing and fishing, provided they stay off the sensitive dunes.

The commission’s move was a response to state legislation, House Bill 631, passed in the last legislative season that would allow beachfront property owners to effectively wall off portions of the beach above the high-water line with signs and barriers, barring beachgoers and sunbathers from the dry sand areas.

The process by which a county could fight to protect public access also changes under the new law, requiring that cities or counties that want to allow public access initiate a legal proceeding against all beachfront property owners to do so. The county can get around that requirement if it enacts an ordinance before July 1 asserting that the public’s “customary use” of the beach will be protected, according to county officials.

To establish that customary use and make it easier to defend in court if that’s ever necessary, the county has been soliciting testimonials from members of the public about their beach use.

Some locals spoke at the commission’s meeting May 8, with local attorney Dennis Bayer calling them up to the podium as witnesses, asking questions to establish how they had used the beach and that their use had involved the portion of the beach above the high-water line.

“As a young child, my mother was a frequent beachgoer and liked to surf fish,” said Barbara Revels, a former county commissioner. As Revels got older, she said, “The entire beachfront was available from county line to county line, and we would travel up and down the beaches fishing and picnicking and having cookouts and camping sometimes, in dune buggies, using the beach.”

The ordinance will come up for a second-reading vote on May 21. Its passage doesn’t mean that landowners could not challenge it in court.

Bayer also gave his own testimony about beach use, saying he’d gone fishing, surfing and camping on the beach since his youth.

The free and open beach access in Flagler County, he said, is one of the things that attract people to the area.

“Everybody I have talked to since this legislation was passed thinks this legislation is a bad idea, and what the county’s doing is a good idea,” he said.

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