March 26, 2018

Florida ends Walton County’s unconstitutional land grab

By Christina M. Martin Attorney

On Friday, Florida Governor Rick Scott signed House Bill 631, ending Walton County’s attempt to steal free access to the private property of PLF’s clients Edward and Delanie Goodwin and landowners across Walton County.

Forty years ago, the Goodwins’ built their beachfront home in Walton County, Florida. Like countless beachfront property owners in Florida, they own the land stretching from their home, across the dry beach all the way down to the mean high water line. (The public owns the land seaward of the mean high water line.) Even though Walton County is home to many, large public beaches, the local government decided in 2016 that it wanted private beaches, too.  Instead of paying for the property, like the Constitution requires, the County tried to steal it.

First, the County passed a law banning the use of any signs, including “no trespassing” signs on all private beaches in the County. County officials threatened the Goodwins with large fines for keeping two “private property” signs and one small sign saying “If Walton County Wants My Property, It Must Pay For It — U.S. Constitution.” Representing the Goodwins (for free, as we do with all of our clients), PLF sued the County alleging that the ordinance violated the Goodwins’ free speech rights.

Rather than back down, the County doubled down: It passed an ordinance declaring that the public has a “right of custom” to use private beaches across the entire county. Walton County’s ordinance tried to steal the use of private property across the County.  According to the ordinance, the Goodwins had no right to right to eject rowdy strangers or drunk spring-breakers out of their own backyard.

Traditionally, to claim a right of custom to use private property, the County should’ve gone to court to prove the use of these beaches for recreational purposes was ancient, reasonable, uninterrupted, and undisputed.  Proving the right in court would’ve been difficult (to say the least), because the County until relatively recently enforced trespassing laws and recognized private property rights on private beaches. Moreover, the County would have to prove the particular type of customary use (e.g., fishing or sunbathing) on specific parcels. It could not prove a narrow public right on one part of the beach and then claim a broad public right to all private beaches in the County. PLF’s lawsuit on behalf of the Goodwins explained this, but Walton County refused to back down.

Thanks to Florida’s legislature and the governor, the County now has no choice. The new state law requires counties to go to court the old fashioned way if they want to claim a right of custom for the public to use private property. This new law protects property owners across Florida from local  government following Walton County’s unconstitutional example. We are grateful to the legislators who fought for this bill and took a stand for property rights.

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