by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
George Leef’s latest Forbes column focuses on a property-rights battle involving a Florida beach.
Edward and DeLanie Goodwin purchased beachfront property in 1971 and built a house on the land in 1978. They own up to the Mean High Water Line; beyond that, the beach is public property. Thus, they own some dry sand beach area and use it for family enjoyment. They have also planted vegetation there to help protect and stabilize the dunes.
Unfortunately, some people who use the public beach don’t respect private property; that’s especially true during Spring Break when thousands of college students flock to the Panhandle beaches. The Goodwins have had to deal with littering, loud parties, and trespass on their land, even including entry into their house. Also, the county has driven its vehicles across their property.
Therefore, they put up signs to indicate their property boundary.
You wouldn’t think doing that could be illegal in the United States, but high-handed officials in Walton County, like many others across the country, don’t really care about the limits on their authority. In June of 2016, the county enacted an ordinance that bans all “obstructions” on the beach, including any sort of sign.
There’s a hidden motive behind that ordinance. In April the county contracted with private attorneys to research the possibility of establishing public access to dry sand areas like that owned by the Goodwins. The county learned that doing so was feasible but it would be necessary to show that public use had occurred often enough to be regarded as “customary.”
As the Goodwins’ complaint explains the action, “Some county officials and members of the public suggested that dry beaches, although privately owned, might be subject to public easements due to alleged public ‘customary’ use.”