New law Gov. Scott signed makes public access to beaches harder to establish
A bill that Gov. Rick Scott signed into law last month has sent shock waves through Florida’s waterfront communities and prompted questions from confused beach residents and businesses. Experts say the law’s effect on beach access is not quite as dire as some people fear.
The bill, HB 163, blocks local governments from adopting ordinances to allow continuedpublic entry to privately owned beaches even when property owners may want to block off their land. Instead, any city or county that wants to do that has to get a judge’s approval first — by suing the private landowners.
The new law "is very bad for local governments," said Alison Fluornoy, a University of Florida law professor. "Suing coastal landowners as the only avenue to establish access is not an attractive option." She also pointed out that requiring a lawsuit means the Legislature put an added burden on the courts without offering any additional funding.
The new law, which goes into effect July 1, has left some people afraid it will immediately cut off public access to beaches all over the state. That’s not the case.
"We’ve been getting lots of calls from people confused about the issue, because it is so confusing," said Robin A. Sollie, executive director of the Tampa Bay Beaches Chamber of Commerce.
Environmental groups such as the Florida Wildlife Federation and the Surfrider Foundation, as well as the Florida Association of Counties, strongly opposed the new law. But county association spokeswoman Cragin Mosteller said that, for now at least, only one Panhandle county is seeing an immediate impact.
While many of Florida’s prettiest beaches are part of the state park system, and thus guaranteed to be open to the public, the state estimates about 60 percent of Florida’s beach property is privately owned. Private ownership extends down to where the sand gets wet, also known as the mean high water line, which is public.
In many areas where beaches are privately owned, tourists and even local residents frequently wander over and set up their chairs, collect sea shells and build sand castles.