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New Florida law reignites beach access fight in Panhandle

SANTA ROSA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Along a stretch of white, sandy shoreline in Florida's Panhandle, a simple question has led to profanity-laden arguments, private security guards and calls to law enforcement: Who owns the beach?

In one coastal county, a new state law is set to rekindle that uproar just in time for the July 4th holiday.

As of July 1, Walton County Sheriff Michael Adkinson said his deputies will have to start arresting people who put their beach blankets down in front of private homes and refuse to leave.

"We will start enforcing private property rights, which is up to including removing people from the beach," Adkinson said. "We are required by law to treat the beach as if it's somebody's front yard."

To county residents like Dave Rauschkolb, a surfer and restaurant owner, that's just wrong.

"Beach access should be sacrosanct for all. The notion of a private beach is an oxymoron," he said. "After this goes into effect, people can be physically removed from specific beaches, like bouncers at a bar, and to me that's despicable."

Many Florida beachfront homes own the sand down to the average high-water line. Yet in some counties, like Walton, local ordinances allow the public to put out towels and umbrellas, fish and hang out if it's shown that those beaches have been open to the public for decades.

A new state law establishes a process for counties to grant what's called "customary use" access to otherwise privately owned beaches. It goes into effect July 1, when beaches will be crowded in this area between Pensacola and Panama City Beach. Long known as the "Redneck Riviera," this stretch of the Gulf Coast has been an established tourist destination for working-class Southerners. More recently, however, it has captured the interest of wealthy visitors who have built multi-million dollar beach homes.

Democratic state Rep. Katie Edwards-Walpole said she sponsored the bill to end legal disputes between local governments and property owners — not restrict beach access.

"I love our state and travel quite extensively," Edwards-Walpole said. "Beach access is a big part of that. The last thing I want to do is restrict my access to beachfront property."

The new law won't change the current rights people have to the beach — except in Walton County.

Unlike two Atlantic Coast counties with similar beach-access ordinances, Walton County's ordinance doesn't follow the requirements of the new law. The county didn't seek court approval before implementing its ordinance and it gave blanket access to all beaches instead of identifying specific parcels of private lands. That' why it will become void.

Now Walton County is gearing up for more fights.

"It's pretty scary," said Theresa Barrett as she prepared to go to one of the county's public beaches. She said there will be more conflicts between local residents and tourists will be driven elsewhere.

"It's going to affect business, it's going to affect property values," said Barrett, who owns a boutique. "They'll definitely go elsewhere. You've got a whole strip of beach in Panama City Beach, you've got St. George Island and all that where they can just pick up and go to those places where they can sit on the beach in peace."

But Bill Hackmeyer and other property owners also want to enjoy their beach in peace, and they say their property values will be affected if anyone can take advantage of the space many paid millions to have to themselves.

Standing on the balcony of his $3.6 million home, Hackmeyer pointed at two people with a beach umbrella among homeowners and renters along the 1,000-foot stretch of beach in front of his gated community.

"Those people are outsiders. I'm pretty sure, but I can't do anything about it until July the first. They're trespassing," Hackmeyer said.

Hackmeyer has already posted signs on the beach notifying visitors that the Viscaya stretch is private property and violators will be trespassing. Folks can walk along the waterline, or at low tide can stake their claim to sand that was wet a few hours earlier, but Hackmeyer plans to ask people to leave the association's beach.

"If we don't reject them, our beach is not going to be our beach. We've paid a lot of money for it, but it's going to be the public's," he said. "Once anybody or everybody comes on the beach, whether you like them or not, it's not exclusive, and property values are based on exclusivity."

Rauschkolb, who has traveled the world to enjoy the ocean, is one of the more vocal Walton County residents fighting for beach access for all.

He's proposed ideas to bridge the dispute, including a beach ambassador program that would help educate people about beach rules.

But the issue isn't going away soon. Walton County commissioners refused to be interviewed for this article, but did issue a press release saying they're going to follow the new law in an effort to give beach access to all.

Hackmeyer is getting ready to fight Walton County again.

"Those people are totally hell-bent on taking private beaches," he said, sipping coffee from a God Loves Republicans cup. "If you let Walton County confiscate private property, we become like Venezuela and Cuba."

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