Man chains himself to American Beach in protest of proposed rule changes

Ronald Starling has been camping out at the beach for years

FERNANDINA BEACH, Fla. – Approaching the gazebo and rest area at American Beach sits a man wearing sunglasses, resting in a foldable chair with a large chain wrapped around his leg. 

Since Nov. 4, Ronald Starling has been chained to a post at American Beach in Nassau County in protest of a change that he fears could be the first step toward making the historic beach private. 

American Beach has a rich history, especially African American history. During segregation, A.L. Lewis, the first African American millionaire in Florida's history, bought acres of land on American Beach.

Historian Carol J. Alexander explained the land could be purchased by Lewis' employees. Small homes were there for African Americans to come to the beach in the segregated south without being humiliated as they had been at segregated beaches.

Generations of African Americans see American Beach as a cultural and historical symbol of strength and freedom that cannot be dismissed. 

Over the years, multistory homes and five-star resorts have been built within miles of American Beach and others along the coast. 

Though some African Americans still own property at American Beach, Alexander said the introduction into housing and resorts making is making it more difficult for everyday people to enjoy the beauty of the beach. There is concern that property taxes will soar and force long-term minority and middle-class homeowners out. 

For decades American Beach was home to MaVynee "the beach lady" Betsch, who spoke against changes that would destroy the tradition and history of American Beach. Betsch was the great granddaughter of Lewis, the man who purchased land to create American Beach for African Americans.

Starling, a Navy veteran, has experienced many things in his life, but none may have altered him more than an aneurysm in 1998. After he recovered, he came to the beach he had enjoyed since he was a young boy: American Beach. 

In 1998, he started the Night Sanders, a group of family and friends who camp out on American Beach overnight. It is one of many long-term traditions. 

"As the years progressed, it began to build up," Starling said.

Now he’s worried that the beach, a haven for black people to vacation during segregation, could be taken away.

Starling’s fears stem from recommendations made by a county committee that was formed to clean up the beach. Among the committee's recommendations? Banning driving and overnight camping on the beach.

“It would stop everything,” Starling told News4Jax. “It would end Night Sanders completely.”

But Nassau County Manager Mike Mullin, who’s also the county attorney, said there’s no truth to the idea that American Beach – or any of the county’s unincorporated beaches – could become private.

As Mullin noted, the Beach Committee Working Group was created by the county commission in response to complaints about noise and litter. He said federal rules prohibit people from driving on the beach or camping out there during sea turtle nesting season.

“You cannot have night camping because you have people walking and traversing the beaches,” Mullin said, noting that any recommendations outlawing camping would also impact beach driving.

It’s unclear why the county might follow the recommendations now since laws have closely regulated activity around sea turtle nests for decades. Mullin cited a growing number of nests in the area.

On Monday, the seventh day of the protest, deputies arrived and told Starling that he must move from the gazebo and restroom area, down to the beach. With his wife beside him, he unchained himself to move his personal belongings to the beach. 

Starling, meanwhile, said he understands change is necessary sometimes, but he remains concerned that tradition could be wiped out if these new rules go into place.

“Yes, things must change, but you have to hold onto your past, your history and your heritage in order to move forward,” he told News4Jax.

Mullin said the county commission is scheduled to meet to discuss the matter on Nov. 18.

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