SANTA ROSA BEACH, Fla. – Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson stood in front of a "No Trespassing" sign Friday and criticized Republican Florida Gov. Rick Scott for signing a bill that voided a Panhandle county's ordinance that allowed the public to use otherwise privately owned beaches.
A spokeswoman for Scott, who is trying to unseat Nelson, called the event organized by Nelson's campaign a "stunt."
The law that went into effect July 1 lays out a process for local governments to allow the public to use privately owned beaches if it can show that the public has used the same sand for decades without interruption.
But in doing so, it voided Walton County's ordinance because it wasn't passed following the new set of rules.
Nelson used a public access point to walk down to the beach and reached across the line where the public beach turns private to shake the hand of a security guard hired to keep people off the beach in front of a gated community.
He then turned to reporters and blasted Scott and the new law.
"Gov. Scott signed the law that has created this no trespassing on what everybody has always considered public use of the beach, so the way to fix the problem is Gov. Scott ought to call a special session of the Legislature and have them reverse the law," Nelson said.
It's highly unlikely Scott will do so.
"This legislation, which was passed with overwhelming support from both Democrats and Republicans, does not privatize Florida's beaches," Scott spokeswoman Lauren Schenone said. "When there was confusion regarding the interpretation of a new law, Gov. Scott took action to address it. Gov. Scott took executive action to protect beach access and has been clear that he is committed to keeping our beaches open to public."
In Florida, many beachfront homeowners own the sand down to the average high tide line. People can still walk the waterline, and at low tide they can make use of the sand that was underwater a few hours earlier.
The law doesn't make public beaches private, and it doesn't change any property rights. The only place in Florida that was immediately affected by the law was Walton County. But there's been a lot of confusion over what it does, so much so that Scott signed an executive order in an attempt to clarify the law and to make clear that the public still has the right to public beaches.
Nelson called the executive order toothless.
"It didn't do anything. It had no legal effect whatsoever. You can't overturn a law with an executive order," Nelson said. "All it was was window dressing with the governor trying to say he's doing something, and he's not."
It's not just Democrats who are concerned about the law. Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, who is seeking to replace Scott, said if he's elected, he wants the Legislature to revisit the law next year.
"It's going to need to be clarified," Putnam told a reporter during a campaign event in Live Oak. "Our beaches are the big reason why people visit Florida. It's part of what makes Florida Florida."
And it was a Democrat, state Rep. Katie Edwards-Walpole, who sponsored the bill. Nelson said he didn't talk to her about the legislation before holding his press conference. Edwards-Walpole said she would have welcomed the conversation.
"I will continue to urge counties like Walton to use the process set forth in statute to pass a customary use ordinance that protects public uses of privately owned lands," she said. "We are talking about a bill that deals with how counties may pass a law that effectuates public use of privately owned lands. This bill does not privatize public beaches."
One of the beachfront homeowners on the private side of the sign Nelson held his event said he just wants his property rights protected.
"We want to be able to enjoy our property in peace. That's all I want," Mark Whittaker said.
But Heidi Christianson owns a house across the street from the beach and she wants to enjoy it, too.
"The only reason we purchase homes next to the beach is to use the beach, so obviously it would affect the value of your home if you couldn't use the beach," she said.