City, County pass beach customary use ordinances in wake of HB631

Submitted by Suanne Z. Thamm
Reporter – News Analyst
June 27, 2018 2:32 p.m.

Examples of customary use of island beaches collected by county staff.

Both Nassau County and the city of Fernandina Beach unanimously passed beach customary use ordinances this week in time to meet the July 1, 2018 deadline imposed by the Florida legislature.  The passage of these ordinances followed extensive public input and hearings to guarantee public access to dry sand beaches following the Legislature’s passage of HB631.  That legislative action flipped the presumption of right to access from public to private property owners.

Unlike many issues that come before local elected bodies, this issue resulted in a unified effort of citizens and their local governments to protect the public’s right of access to dry sand beaches.

Opinions differed as to the potential extent of the problem locally.  City officials maintained that because of prior beach renourishment efforts, most city beaches would not be affected by the new law.  But in an abundance of caution, both Nassau County and Fernandina Beach quickly put together ordinances to comply with the July 1 deadline set by the Legislature.

These ordinances may be used as an affirmative defense should any private property owner challenge the public’s right to access what they consider to be their private dry sand beach.  However, a judge will decide any challenge, unless the Legislature takes action in a future session to change or throw out HB631.

County Ordinance 2018-18

County Attorney Mike Mullin recapped the 20-page ordinance and suggested changes.  He thanked county staff and citizens for participation and input to the fact finding process.  He said that more than 7,000 affidavits had been gathered to explain how island beaches have been open to the public over the years.

Lowell Hall, speaking for the Citizens for the Preservation of Public Beaches, thanked the county for a job well done and offered to continue working with the county to preserve public access to beaches.  He added another 800 affidavits to the record attesting to public use over the years.

Commissioner Danny Leeper (Dist. 1) thanked the board for making this issue a priority and Mullin for mounting a rapid research effort to bring the ordinance forward for a vote. Public response was overwhelmingly helpful and positive.

During the many meetings and discussions that led to the final draft of the ordinance, several residents and homeowners associations raised concerns over the behavior of some individuals driving on the beach between Peters Point and the Fernandina Beach city limits.  They cited damage to the beach from irresponsible drivers of vehicles, raucous gatherings, consumption of alcohol and other types of nuisance behavior.

Chair Pat Edwards (Dist. 3) asked for the public’s help in making the beaches safe for everyone. “If you see something, say something,” he said.

When the vote was recorded, Ordinance 2018-18 passed on a unanimous vote.  Commissioner George Spicer (Dist. 4) was not in attendance.

City Ordinance 2018-14

The Fernandina Beach City Commission passed its 3-page ordinance to protect the public’s customary use of dry sand beaches on a 5-0 vote at the ordinance’s second reading on June 26, 2018.  City Attorney Tammi Bach recapped her recommended changes, adding that she had modeled the ordinance on that of St. Johns County, which has been in effect for many years.

Bach added a definition to read:

The definition of “beach” in this Division shall include all of the sand beach area extending from the seaward edge of the primary dune system, or if no dune system exists, from the seaward edge of any seawall, bluff, toe, rock revetment, or permanent dune vegetation, seaward to the mean high water line in all locations, regardless of the presence or lack of any erosion control lines.

Also added was a definition of public access:

Specifically, “public approach” means the public has unlimited along shore (or shore parallel) access along City beaches. In addition, “public approach” means cross-shore access (from the upland to the beach) is limited to publicly-owned approaches, deeded and recorded easements, public right-of-way or street ends, City-owned parks, and other types of public approaches deemed public via plat, easement, deed or other recorded instrument.

Back up materials were provided by reference from the county’s ordinance and other sources.

Bach thanked county staff and the public for their help in gathering evidence in support of the ordinance.  Considerable input was provided during First Reading of the Ordinance in May.

The city’s beach consultant Eric Olson provided additional explanations on the role of the erosion control line in determining public access areas. Bach emphasized that the public may not access dry sand beaches via private property without permission from the owners.

Lowell Hall addressed the FBCC, thanking them for working with his organization, which was established in 1973 to protect public access to beaches and shores.  He reasserted the organization’s willingness to work with the city on future endeavors to protect beaches.  Almost 9,000 affidavits have been collected to support the current effort. He recapped efforts of his organization to save the fishing bridge at the south end of Amelia Island as well as the creation of Seaside Park and the Timucuan Preserve.

Vice Mayor Len Kreger recommended approval of the ordinance.  He was seconded by Commissioner Roy Smith.  The item passed unanimously.

Editor’s Note: Suanne Z. Thamm is a native of Chautauqua County, NY, who moved to Fernandina Beach from Alexandria,VA, in 1994. As a long time city resident and city watcher, she provides interesting insight into the many issues that impact our city. We are grateful for Suanne’s many contributions to the Fernandina Observer.

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Dave Lott
Dave Lott(@dave-l)
5 years ago

Good to see this action. Key word in the city’s beaches is “most” having been protected by renourishment easements, but now it will be “all”. While most of the “threat” appears to be coming from homeowners on county beaches, the loss of a single foot of access is too much to bear.