Beach Access Proposal Draws Support, Dissent

Article excerpt

Byline: Drew Dixon, Shorelines staff writer

A proposed state law designed to protect open beach access has drawn swift reaction from the Jacksonville area and beyond.

Scott Shine, chairman of the First Coast chapter of Surfrider Foundation, presented the proposed Open Beaches Act to the First Coast Legislative Delegation on Nov. 14. The proposal has drawn both positive and negative reaction.

The act, if approved by the Legislature, would create state public policy that would define a beach access as "those lands 1,000 feet inland of the landward-most point of the vegetation line that are owned by any local or state government.

"It will be a violation for any government entity to restrict access to the beaches of the state through restrictions on or the creation of impediments to the lawful, reasonable and customary use of public lands and easements" surrounding beach access points, reads the draft document, which is about a dozen pages long.

"There's more questions, and I really don't know how to answer them," said Les McDevitt, president of the Ponte Vedra Beaches Coalition, a group representing about two dozen homeowners associations in northeast St. Johns County.

The problem with the proposed Open Beaches Act is that it's too broad, McDevitt said.

"I'm very curious about that 1,000 feet," he said. "That seems like quite a distance. I don't know what that is or how far it is or why.

"Does that go all the way across Ponte Vedra Boulevard? Where does it stop? I would like to see a diagram of what they're talking about. I think, for right now, it's ambiguous and it's going to affect a great many communities, not only Ponte Vedra."

Shine acknowledged the current fight over access in Ponte Vedra Beach was a factor in the drafting of the Open Beaches Act. He downplayed the significance of the 1,000-foot clause in the wording.

"One thousand feet is not a lot of space, that's about a fifth of a mile," Shine said. "What it does is provide for oversight by the [Florida Department of Environmental Protection]. If there's some reason that a municipality wants to vacate a piece of property and the reason they want to do it is for the benefit of the public at large, they can still do that.

"The problem has been that local municipalities have been lobbied by oceanfront landowners and developers to give away that public land so that you have a wall of development that creates a barrier between the public and public land," Shine said.

McDevitt said he personally supports the county's efforts to vacate public ownership of a strip of 34-foot-wide public rights of way across the street from the 14 public beach accesses on Ponte Vedra Boulevard. If the county vacates the public land, private property owners could claim it.

Deputy County Attorney Michael Hunt already has drafted a resolution advising the county to vacate its interest in the land. The Ponte Vedra Zoning and Adjustment Board unanimously recommended approval of the resolution and the County Commission is expected to vote on the measure early next year.

Surfrider and other beach-access advocates have charged the rights of way could be used for parking to get to the beach accesses and the county is divesting public ownership to block access to the public beach paths. …