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Florida Governor issues executive order clearing up beach access confusion

PHOTO: WEAR-TV

All Florida beaches are open to the public, at least up to the 'mean high water' line. Generally, that's where the dry and wet sand meet. But in 2017, Walton County passed a 'customary use' ordinance in which beachgoers were allowed to enjoy areas above that line.

Now, a new law signed by Governor Rick Scott earlier this year, is changing things.

The new law, which went into effect July first, voids that ordinance. So, signs went up around properties, warning public beachgoers that some areas are 'off-limits'. State attorney, Bill Eddins tells us now, Walton County leaders aim to change things back to how they were.

"The customary use ordinance that Walton County is considering passing would grant the citizens of Walton County increased access in use of the beach," said Eddins. "The landowners on the other hand, it's my understanding, have already filed a federal lawsuit attacking the old ordinance that was in effect, saying that it's taking away their property rights."

Will Dunaway represents several beachfront property owners. He says the new law simply returns beaches to the status quo: public versus private.

"All that went into effect on one July, was to remind the Walton County government, and any county government, that if you're trying to expand the public's access to private property, you have to do that through the courts," said Dunaway.

To clear up any confusion, Governor Scott issued an executive order on Thursday. It states:

- Florida government agencies should not adopt any rule restricting public access to beaches that have an established recreational customary use.

- The Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the Florida State Parks System should serve as a liaison between the government and the public, specifically by launching an online reporting tool for the public and submitting a report of any public concerns by the end of the year.

- All county and municipal governments should refrain from adopting any ordinance or rule that would restrict public beaches.

And finally, all state attorneys should take "appropriate actions" to ensure the public's access to beaches.

That's where the challenge lies now, as Eddins says prosecuting those accused of breaking the law isn't as clear as a line drawn in the sand.

"The legal description of 'mean high water', is a little bit different from the traditional or practical description of 'mean high water'," said Eddins. "But in summary, the signs that people are posting should not and does not prevent the general public from using the beach up to the 'mean high water' mark, or up to the wet sand."

The legal description of 'mean water line' is based off of the average high water line over the last 19 years. Due to beach erosion, many areas now have less beach, meaning that line could legally be underwater in some areas.

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