Leaders clarify how new law will affect your access to Florida beaches

Rep. Cord Byrd says wet sand is public property, law doesn't change that

By Vic Micolucci - I-TEAM reporter, anchor

NEPTUNE BEACH, Fla. - Northeast Florida leaders are speaking up after an outcry about a new law, which some argue reduces the access to beaches in the state of Florida.

Gov. Rick Scott recently signed House Bill 631 into law. The Possession of Real Property Bill deals with the rights beachfront property owners have to the sand behind their homes and businesses.

"It's everybody's beach," beachgoer Jeannette Ferrell said.

It's a hot topic making waves in the Sunshine State as many believed their access to the beach is being restricted.

"Make it easier for people to go on the beach, not harder," beachgoer Ken Nugent said.

News4Jax reported on Tuesday that some beachgoers were upset about what they think a new law means for those who own oceanfront property in Florida and that it could potentially give owners the right to block access to the part of beach in front of their land, allowing them to put up signs, rope the area off or even tell visitors to leave.

But after backlash online from people who are worried it will give owners the right to kick people off public beaches, local leaders are trying to set the record straight.

State Rep. Cord Byrd, whose district includes Duval and Nassau County coasts, told News4Jax on Thursday that it's complicated, but to simplify it, those who own property on the beach generally own the land up to the sand dunes, which are protected by the state and are off-limits.

Byrd said the wet sand in between the water and the dunes is public property, and beachgoers have a right to access it. He said the new law doesn't change that. 

"The Florida Constitution protects the public's right of access to our beaches," Byrd said.

Byrd voted in favor of the bill, and said there has been a lot of speculation about how the law works.

"People believe, or they're being led to believe, that property owners along the beach will be able to erect fences and to deny people either access or the ability to walk up and down the beach or to lay on a beach towel," Byrd said. "That's simply not true."

Instead, he said, it’s simply a technical, legal issue that says if a local government changes a beach access ordinance,  property owners could fight it in state court as one, unified case, ultimately saving taxpayers money.

But don’t just take his word for it.

"It's not my law. But my understanding of it is it doesn't impact our beaches at all," Neptune Beach City Councilman Rory Diamond said.

Diamond said don’t worry, the public can always access the beaches.

"I think that there is concern that this new law makes it so that you can't get on the beach or somebody could stop you," he said. "The answer to that is that's not true. But if they ever did, that there would be pitchforks out here. And I would help lead the revolution any day."

Jon McGowan, who lives on the ocean in Jacksonville Beach, doesn’t think anyone who lives at or visits the beach will notice any difference after the law goes into effect July 1.

"Nothing has changes as far as any of the property owners, or the residence, or the business owners out here," McGowan said.

So long story short: The beach is a public asset. It’s state property. And it’s protected by the Constitution.

But don’t forget, stay off the dunes. 

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