February 12, 2024

What Locals, Vacation Renters, and Property Owners Should Know about Beach Access in Walton County

South Walton is a beautiful and singularly unique vacation destination for millions of visitors each year and the beauty of the beaches of South Walton can be (and should be) shared by all. Knowing where to use and enjoy the beach will increase the enjoyment for all – visitors and beachfront owners.

In Florida, the boundary line between public and private land along the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean is the Mean High Water Line (MHWL). The public’s right to use the beach seaward of the MHWL has never been in question. The question of when the public can use the area of the beach landward of the MHWL to the toe of the dune is answered by the legal doctrine of Customary Use.

You may have seen news about Customary Use litigation in Walton County recently. I represented property owners in their defense against the county’s lawsuit, and I invite you to read my longer article on the doctrine of Customary Use and the specifics of the case here.

To make a very long story short, public beaches are still public and private beaches are still private. Seaward of the MHWL is still protected for public use and seaward of the ECL in western Walton County is still available for the public’s recreational use. There are, however, 95 parcels in Walton County that have a judicial finding of Customary Use on private property, where the county is required to create signage and maps informing the public of areas of the beach the public may use and areas that the public may not use.

All beachgoers, property owners, and vacation renters should be aware of the status of the beach they are planning to use and the best way to know is to read the signs (when the county posts them). If the sign indicates it is a public beach area, then you are welcome to use it responsibly. If the sign indicates the area is private property, it is not available for public use. Of course, all beachgoers may freely enjoy the wet sand area seaward of the MHWL, but take care as this line is rarely marked clearly on the beach.

As a practical matter, most private property owners (even the larger gated subdivisions) are not likely to confront walkers or joggers passing over their private beach front property along the shoreline as long as visitors are on the “wet sand,” that area where the current action of the waves are in contact with the shoreline.

Confusion may also arise when vacationers rent in a specific subdivision or community, but their rental unit is not directly on the beach. Often, these vacationers assume that because they are staying in a particular beach community, the beaches are available for them to use. This is not always the case, so vacationers should verify both beach access and beach use (they are not the same) with their rental manager or the county’s Tourist Development Council before they vacation in South Walton.

If you are a property owner or simply a beach lover with an issue of contention regarding Customary Use in Florida, I invite you to contact me. As someone who has negotiated environmental matters at the federal, state, and local government level for more than 20 years, I am always interested in helping others navigate the murky waters of Customary Use.

Helpful links:
Final Summary Judgment on Remaining Parcels, issued 2/15/2024 
Beach and Bay Access Location Map on visitsouthwalton.com.

About Will Dunaway

Will Dunaway is a land use and environmental attorney at Clark Partington Law Firm in Pensacola, Florida. Clark Partington also has offices in Destin, Grayton Beach, and Tallahassee, and has been proud to serve the Gulf Coast since 1976. Mr. Dunaway represented private property owners in the recently concluded Walton County Customary Use litigation and has negotiated environmental matters at the federal, state, and local government levels for over twenty years.

Before joining Clark Partington, Will had a career in the United States Navy, serving as a Naval Surface Warfare Officer and, following law school, as a Prosecutor, Defense Counsel, Military Judge, and, after further schooling, Environmental Attorney.

The content above can be used for background, citing Will Dunaway of the Clark Partington Law Firm as the source. For an interview or on-the-record statements, please contact Cecily Kopytchak at (850) 208-7043 or ckopytchak@clarkpartington.com.