Saturday, May 13, 2017

House Bill that raised concerns in St. Johns County about beach access is dead (SAR)

Thanks to Jake Martin for his research: the bill is dead.

Posted May 13, 2017 03:44 am - Updated May 13, 2017 03:45 am
House Bill that raised concerns in St. Johns County about beach access is dead

A wide-ranging land-use bill that had St. Johns County officials worrying about possible restrictions on beach access for public use behind oceanfront homes died Monday.

The Record on May 6 reported the bill had unanimously passed the House on May 2 by a 118-0 vote and that it passed the Senate on May 5 by a 36-1 vote, with local delegates Sen. Travis Hutson, Rep. Cyndi Stevenson and Rep. Paul Renner all voting yes. At the time, the Florida Senate website indicated in the vote history for the bill that both chambers voted on and approved the same engrossed version of the bill.

However, the bill history, as accessed this week, shows the Senate actually approved a revised bill that, among other changes, did away with a customary-use provision at the root of the county’s concerns. The outline shows the House ultimately refused to concur with the modifications and requested the Senate to recede, after which the bill died without further action.

House Bill 735, as passed by the House, included some protections for property rights, but a late add-on also prohibited local governments from promulgating, adopting or enforcing “any ordinance that purports to establish a common law customary use of property.” The amendment, which took up just six lines of the 34-page bill, also included a provision that it was not intended to prohibit local governments from “intervening in a judicial proceeding involving customary use.”

The bill, first filed in February by Rep. Katie Edwards, D-Plantation, originally dealt with property purchases. Edwards amended it on April 24 to include the customary-use provision.

County Attorney Patrick McCormack said the amendment was rushed through, poorly written and could have had unintended effects, not only on routine beach management but also on beach renourishment efforts.

Florida beaches are more or less private except for a narrow stretch along the shoreline situated below what is called the “mean high tide line.”

St. Johns County Ordinance 2007-19, also known as the Beach Code, regulates conduct on county beaches. The code recognizes, as a legislative finding of fact, that the public’s use of the dry sand portions of beaches within the county has been “ancient, reasonable, without interruption, and free from dispute; and that because of this customary access and use, the public has the right of access to the beach and a right to use the beach for recreation and other customary purposes.”

McCormack said the county’s fear was that should the bill become a law, it could be used by property owners to interfere with “bona fide customary use in many areas.”

Stevenson told The Record on Friday the amendment didn’t just “pop up” but that it came as a result of the Judiciary Committee’s review. She said it was really an attempt to clarify complex issues of public uses of property but probably did more to “excite” people than anything else.

“Basically, the amendment is not intended to change anything about the customary use on beaches,” she said, adding such uses are usually determined in court. “Counties don’t have the right to create the easement.”

Stevenson said the provision was not just about beach access, but rights along the rivers as well. She said sheriff’s offices have reported people are getting increasingly “hyper-vigilant” about neighbors crossing what they consider their property to get to the ocean and seeing it as a potential adverse taking.

She said trying to clarify common-law customary-use issues is nothing new and similar provisions could be on the table at next year’s session.

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