Beach Goers and Residents Infuriated by House Bill 631

Controversial Beach Access Control Quickly Signed Into Law

With no chance for public input, a new law was pushed through the Florida House affecting public beach access earlier this year. Governor Rick Scott’s office was inundated with a ton of phone calls and letters with pleads for a veto. Ignoring the very people that have provided him with a second term in office, Scott quickly signed the new bill which has since gone into effect on July 1, 2018.

This new bill brings into question the public and private use of Florida’s beaches. Historically, disputes of this nature were handled on the local level, but some have escalated to the Florida Supreme Court for a final decision. HB 631 favors the private landowner and further strips municipalities of their rights to diffuse local disputes. Florida residents and seasonal tourists are in an uproar over being blind-sided and losing their rights to beach access.

Realtors, small business owners and the service industry have also shown great distaste for this new law. Rightfully so, as it could very well cripple Florida’s tourism industry and the currently booming real estate market. Afterall, why would “snow birds” and transplants flock here if they thought the beautiful beaches were only 40% accessible?

Let’s Review Current Beach Access

It is important to realize public beaches are not affected by this new bill. Well, what does that mean? Florida ranks second in the nation for the longest coastline at 1,350 miles – only surpassed by Alaska. Depending on which agency you consult, Florida boasts roughly 900 miles of beach. Forty percent of those beaches are deemed public and/or part of the State Parks system. So the overwhelming concern surrounds roughly 540 miles of beach.

Barefoot Beach Bonita
VistFlorida.com is loaded with picturesque beach photos, but no mention of the impacts of HB 631

The concern is definitely warranted now that the law has been enacted on July 1st, 2018. Legal jargon aside, HB 631 provides private property owners the right to ‘eject’ trespassers at their discretion and by any means they elect. Calling local law enforcement or even hiring private security personnel is not unheard of for beachfront property owners.

Additionally, this new law overrules any previous assumptions of customary use. Customary use commonly sides with the public in recognizing that a parcel of land has been historically enjoyed without dispute, and should continue in that manner.

However, HB 631 cannot disrupt laws that were put into effect by municipalities and local governments prior to January 2016. The law also does not dictate how each county should deal with disputes that arise. Local governments and law enforcement agencies have already stated they will not arrest beachgoers for trespassing on private property.

Not exactly a win for the general public since now the dry sand of the beach comes with a metaphorical ‘Enter at Your Own Risk’ sign. Beachgoers may take a gamble by visiting their favorite sandy spot, uncertain if they’ll be asked to leave.

A Steep Learning Curve

Carrabelle Beach
The mean high water line (or high tide weedline) is the safe zone for any beach

No matter what beach you visit in Florida, public access is granted anywhere seaward of what’s known as the mean high water line. Some would advise staying in the wet sand and then no one can tell you to leave. Another fair rule of thumb is to observe the weed line staining the sand and stay seaward of that. Otherwise, with nearly 400 miles of public beaches, there could be a beautiful spot nearby that has yet to be explored and is free from the HB 631 regulations.

Taking a different approach, there truly is a learning curve to any new law or regulation that is enacted. Warnings are given by officials who understand it may be the first time someone is hearing of the new law. It’s worth testing the waters at your favorite beach spot to learn if enforcement of HB 631 is occurring. Chances are, you can continue to enjoy both the wet and dry sand without fear of being asked to leave.

Now in effect, locals will be learning soon which areas are welcoming and which should be avoided. As our seasonal residents return, this law will be fresh news for them and gentle warnings and light enforcement may continue for their sake. Bottom line, the few viral posts circling the internet of brash officials ejecting formerly happy beachgoers are the exception, not the norm. While the new law may warrant feelings of anger and betrayal, it is not a relentless thunderstorm on your beach plans.

Can’t We All Just Get Along?

beach access enforcementIt’s important to realize this law now protects resorts, condos and even neighborhood associations along with private property owners. Disputes have arisen in years past when a resort or beach club decides to erect barriers on a beach to provide guests and owners with an exclusive beach experience. Restricting beach access in this manner leads to disputes at the city or county level.

To this, the general public immediately grabs pitchforks and torches chanting that all beaches must be open for public use. However, let’s turn the tables. Guests of these resorts and condos traveled from afar and plunked down some serious cash to enjoy a vacation with their loved ones. They were sold an unforgettable experience with pristine beach access and expect that for their stay.

Most locals who frequent the beach do so orderly and lovingly to both the water and sand. But we all know there are the rogues who ruin the beach day for everyone. Loud, vulgar, littering and lewd individuals crash the beach and wreck the experience for both locals and resort guests. Complaints are lodged, but the partiers scatter before the law enforcement have a chance to issue fines or make arrests.

Years of this back and forth tug-of-war between public and private beach access became a catalyst for HB 631. The fact that politicians — including Gov. Scott — along with super-rich musicians, athletes and Hollywood elites own beachfront mansions just helped push it through legislation super quick. The old adage ‘Money Talks’ definitely shines in this instance, but ultimately the public pays the price.

Ignore the Naysayers and the Proceeding Letters

When dealing with a new law or controversy, it’s important to stay objective and work to understand the complete picture. Leaning too far to one side or the other results in misguidance and poor judgment. Worse, it could erupt in arguments and even compromise friendships.

Keep in mind, before this bill ever hit Governor Scott’s desk it passed through the House and Senate with an overwhelming majority. That’s right. It doesn’t matter what letter of the alphabet follows a politicians name, they will behave and vote to their own best interest or the best interests of their biggest donors.

Please, no matter what the issue at hand is, always vote based on an individual’s merits, past performance and future aspirations. Any politician could be batting for the other team, regardless of their party affiliation. If you deliberately stick to just one side without researching every candidate in each race, you are basically answering ‘C’ for every single question on the test and you will not be awarded a good grade.

The Future of Beach Access

One of the biggest beach holidays of the year (Independence Day) landed after the effective date of HB 631. There should definitely be concern amongst several industries and the general public, but it is too soon to know how this story will play out.

Chanting the worst case scenarios may actually injure the economy and tourism more than the law itself. Curb the negativity; the rants; the name-calling and the demand for party affiliations.

Grab your beach bag, sandals and sunblock and head for your favorite sandy spot. You may be surprised by how little HB 631 actually affects anything about your day at the beach.

If politely asked to relocate, see it as an opportunity to find new sand for your toes – not a chance to send your thumbs on an emotional temper tantrum on social media.