Walton County Commissioners Vote to remove all obstructions from Beaches

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All obstructions on the beach must come down, say Walton County Commissioners.

Well, three of them said that, and that was all that was needed.
BCC Chair Sara Comander took charge at Tuesday’s meeting and moved the most anticipated and controversial item on the agenda to the front to get it out of the way early. That item was the proposed amendment to Chapter 22 of the Beach Ordinance dealing with Leave No Trace. Specifically, the amendment addresses beachfront homeowners placing signs, poles, chains and roping off what they consider to be their gulf-front property.

“We need somebody on every half mile of beach to enforce (the ordinance),” said District 5 Commissioner Cindy Meadows. “We need management on the beach. We have to get out on those beaches and manage them and ramp up enforcement — as many as needed. We should be like Disney. We need to look at enforcement and cleaning up our beach. Ropes and chains need to go.

“It needs to look like we feature in our ads where we show one person out there on a float,” she added.

Emmett Hildreth of Blue Mountain Beach was the first Gulf-front property owner to address commissioners, reminding them of his freedom of speech and private property rights.

“People have a right to place whatever they want on their property,” he said. “That’s where the issue lies. Do you respect property or not?”
Tommy Bowden of Deer Lake area agreed.
“There are plenty of places for people to go to the beach besides on my property,” he said. “No one has offered to help pay my taxes. I like to sit on the property I am paying taxes on. Help me pay my taxes and I’ll let you sit on it. I live on Deer Lake. If people are looking for a place to go, go there.”

Suzanne Harris of Edgewater Beach offered a warning to commissioners.
“You are going to end up with private security guards with guns on every beach if you pass this,” she said.

However, Celeste Cobena of Dune Allen disagreed.
“I think it is completely hypocritical for us to spend millions of dollars asking people to come here then have chains keeping them from the beach and signs saying no trespassing,” Cobena said. “If you don’t think this will hurt Walton County in the long run, you’re wrong.

“When people are paying a lot of money to stay on the beach, they want to relax,” she added. “Chains and signs are not relaxing.”

The amendment to Chapter 22 of the Beach Ordinance was approved by a vote of 3-2. District 2 Commissioner Cecilia Jones, District 4 Commissioner Sara Comander and Meadows voted to approve the amendment while District 1 Commissioner Bill Chapman and District 3 Commissioner Bill Imfeld voted against it.

“Exactly what is an obstruction?” Imfeld asked.
He said he could see taking down ropes and fences, but not signs, as that is a property right.

And as a former law man, Chapman attempted to look out for the sheriff and deputies who might be called to enforce trespassing.
“You need poles to be able to tell where property lines are,” he said, recommending taking the amendment off the table and addressing at a later date.
However, Comander said the sheriff never talked to her about his concerns and made the motion to approve the amendment as written.

“The Leave No Trace ordinance now specifies that no fences, chains, or signs may be used on the beach,” BCC Public Information Officer Louis Svehla said after the meeting. “With the exception of sand fencing on the dune or DEP-approved sand fencing on the dry sand, all others are prohibited from being on the beach at all times.”

This amendment to the ordinance would take place immediately, according to Jones.
“I would assume that we will now start enforcing the new ordinance and ask the owners to take down these items and follow pursuit as any other code violation if they do not,” she said.

Prior to discussion, county attorney Mark Davis explained that the board was not voting on the issue of customary use of the beach, but on amendments to the Leave No Trace ordinance, which would affect property south of the construction line all the way to the wet sandy beach.

It will now fall on the county to enforce the amended ordinance.
“This is our entire economy,” Meadows said. “Everybody feeds off this beach. I’ve lost friends over this. Leave no trace means leave no trace. I think we need to remove everything, then if we want to add things back in we can.”

“The Leave No Trace ordinance now specifies that no fences, chains, or signs may be used on the beach,” BCC Public Information Officer Louis Svehla explained after the meeting. “With the exception of sand fencing on the dune or DEP-approved sand fencing on the dry sand, all others are prohibited from being on the beach at all times.”

This amendment to the ordinance would take place immediately, according to Jones.
“I would assume that we will now start enforcing the new ordinance and ask the owners to take down these items and follow pursuit as any other code violation if they do not,” she said.

Jones sent out a letter to contacts the day before the meeting asking all to come out and support her in her endeavor to get all the signs, ropes, chains, and fences taken down off South Walton’s beaches. And many in the community did.

Prior to discussion, county attorney Mark Davis explained that the board was not voting on the issue of customary use of the beach, but on amendments to the Leave No Trace ordinance, which would affect property south of the construction line all the way to the wet sandy beach.

It will now fall on the county to enforce the amended ordinance.
“We need somebody on every half mile of beach to enforce,” Meadows said. “We need management on the beach. We have to get out on those beaches and manage them and ramp up enforcement — as many as needed. We should be like Disney. We need to look at enforcement and cleaning up our beach. Ropes and chains need to go.

“We should all work together to make our beaches beautiful and safe,” said Jones.
Comander acknowledged that more code enforcement was needed on the beach. In her closing remarks, she took the opportunity to shame the gulf-front homeowners.

“We are going to hire three more (code enforcement officers) and we will hire 10 more if needed,” she said. “We need to take a look at tents on the beach and vendors. We are getting more crowded. We have changed, some for good, some not so good. We need to take a look at dogs. If we leave the ropes and chains, we will get in trouble with the feds over turtles and beach mice. To those of you who are beach-front owners, think how fortunate you are. Whoever earned the money, the Lord had a hand in it. The rest of us would like to walk that beach.”

The Walton Sun’s – Deborah Wheeler