Condo Owners Decry County Ordinance Opening Up Beaches

(CN) – A group of Florida condo owners asked a federal judge on Tuesday to overturn a county ordinance that opened up their private beaches to the public.

The property owners filed a request for an injunction against Walton County in Pensacola Federal Court, months after county commissioners voted to allow public access to 26 miles of what the plaintiffs claim are privately-owned beaches.

The complaint alleges the commissioners violated property rights by forcing homeowners to allow “the physical invasion of their private property by the public under threat of prosecution and imposition of civil remedies.”

The county ordinance, passed in April, lets the public to walk or lounge on the “dry sandy” beach at least 15 feet away from privately-owned buildings. People can swim or surf in the water too, but may not bring animals, tents or smoke cigarettes on the beach. Property owners who prevent the public from using the beach can be fined up to $500 per day.

In all, over 900 property parcels are affected by the ordinance. The similar suits are also pending against the county.

Walton County’s public information officer could not immediately be reached for comment.

In the 52-page complaint, the homeowners and condominium associations claim county commissioners overstepped their authority by defining private property rights legislatively instead going through the courts.

The lawsuit likens the ordinance to a kind of eminent domain, but without due process and compensation.

Many of the homeowners objecting to the ordinance live in an unincorporated part of the county known as Seaside. The planned community was the main filming location for the movie “The Truman Show.” The beachfront property owners pay assessments for daily trash removal on the beaches and a security patrol.

The beaches in and around Walton County, 130 miles west of Tallahassee, are some of the last undeveloped stretches in the state. Last year, 3.6 million tourists visited the county, according to the Walton County Tourist Development Council.

The condo owners say criminal activity has also  increased as a result of the ordinance. In response, they say they’ve put up signs and, in some cases, gave residents wristbands to identify them from the non-invited public.

The issue of “customary use” is not new to the state. In 1974, the Florida Supreme Court ruled the public has long had the right to enjoy the state’s beaches. A Florida appellate court upheld the doctrine in 2007, adding the public does not need to prove historic use of individual parcels, but the area as a whole.

Earlier this year, the Florida Legislature nearly took up the issue with a bill that would have prevented customary use ordinances, but the legislation died at the end of the session.

The property owners are represented by David Smolker of the Tampa-based firm Smolker, Bartlett, Loeb, Hinds and Sheppard.

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