April 21, 2018

Sandstorm- Northwest- Nov. 2002

Joan Hughes | 11/1/2002
Mark Austin uses a public access walkover to get to a stretch of Dune Allen beach, then plants his chair on the sand between the Gulf and a modest beach house a few yards west of the access point. Austin had come to expect mild confrontations with the property owner, William Houser, who has objected to Austin's presence on "his" sand. But in July, Houser called police, who gave Austin a summons for trespassing.

A court threw out the summons, but the incident highlights an issue that's generated controversy in Hawaii, California and on both coasts of Florida -- the public's right to use the beach. The public's right to the beach below the high-tide line is long established in law, but many homeowners contend the entire portion of the beach above the high-tide line -- regardless how large an area -- is private.

Walton County Commissioner Tim Pauls has had enough of beachfront owners trying to block access to the beach and wants the county's laws and regulations to establish clearly that the public can use the entire beachfront.

Pauls first proposed incorporating a public beach access policy in the county's new beach activities ordinance. But because of the legal intricacies of the issue, the county's attorneys warned commissioners against combining the two issues.

The commission then authorized drafting a separate ordinance, but many expect the proposed law will only add to the controversy. It's based on the 1974 Florida Supreme Court decision in City of Daytona Beach v. Tony Rama, which says that the public can use the dry sand portion of the beach if there's a suitable historic precedent. The catch is that this "customary use" must be proved on a tract-by-tract basis.

Neighboring Destin proposed a similar ordinance in 1999. Beachfront owners immediately threatened litigation on the grounds that the ordinance violated basic private property rights. In spite of widespread public support, the city backed down, opting to rely on the sheriff's department to make the judgment call on trespassing complaints. Walton County understands the stakes, says Pauls, but insists, "We can't just stick our heads in the sand and think it's not an issue."

George Ralph Miller, who served for 33 years as Walton County's attorney and lives on the beach, believes confrontations are isolated. An ordinance, he says, will stir up controversy that is not widespread now, as both landowners and beach-goers assert their rights more aggressively.

"We may be making much ado about nothing, but if they're serious about determining the issue of private vs. public property rights, then it'll be controversial," Miller says.

Austin welcomes that controversy. "They want to keep the riffraff out, and if we wait around, we'll lose the beaches altogether."


Crestview -- Long plagued by overcrowding at its jail, the Okaloosa County Department of Corrections has broken ground on a $7.3-million expansion project. The first phase, to be completed next year, is a 120-bed medium/maximum security housing facility that will employ 15 additional officers.

Destin -- Responding to demand from coastal resorts, Phoenix Air of Cartersville, Ga., has begun regular weekend flights between Destin and Atlanta. The flights bypass Atlanta Hartsfield International and Okaloosa Regional Airport, using smaller outlying airports to allow faster transfer times for passengers.

Escambia County -- Gulf Power Co. plans to voluntarily reduce ozone-producing nitrous oxide emissions by 61% at its coal-fired Crist plant by spending up to $200 million in pollution controls over the next four to five years.

Fort Walton Beach -- The Northwest Florida Ballet has opened the Sybil Lebherz Center for Dance Education, a $1.2-million, 13,000-sq.-ft. facility. The new center also serves as the site of the newly formed Northwest Florida Ballet Academy, Florida's first full-time ballet school for elementary-age children.

Jay -- Jay Hospital, owned by Santa Rosa County and leased by Baptist Health Care, has begun a $2.5-million expansion and renovation that will add 13,000 square feet, increasing the hospital's size by 60%.

Mariana -- Chipola Junior College received a $950,000 Department of Education grant for an educational support program called Talent Search. The program provides low-income, first-generation college-bound students in the area's 24 middle and high schools with career assessments, study skills training, goal planning, time management and interest assessments. Approximately 700 students will be served annually.

Milton -- Facing opposition from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the Santa Rosa County Commission, Mercury Marine has withdrawn plans to build a boat-engine testing facility on its property near the Blackwater River. The 10-acre lot is zoned for heavy industrial use but contains wetlands. The project was slated to bring 35 jobs to the area.

Pace -- Sacred Heart Health Systems is building a $5-million, 40,000-sq.-ft. medical facility in Pace that will provide diagnostic services, surgery rooms and physicians offices. The $300-million company has facilities or physicians offices in 21 locations in south Alabama and northwest Florida.

Panhandle -- After state and county officials denied its request for a moratorium on five major St. Joe Co. developments in four counties, including construction of a Panama City airport on 1,700 acres of wetlands, the newly formed Panhandle Citizens Coalition is mounting petition drives to ensure residents are allowed to vote on development issues that pose a significant impact on the surrounding area.

Pensacola -- Best Software of Irvine, Calif., has acquired CPASoftware, which markets professional accounting practice software. CPASoftware, with about 10,000 users, a staff of 90 and $7.4 million in revenues, will remain in Pensacola.

The Pensacola Convention and Visitor Information Center has opened an office in Atlanta with a focus on marketing the area to tour operators and meeting planners.

Perry -- Doctor's Memorial Hospital is scheduled to open in January, replacing Taylor County's aging rural hospital with a $20-million, 96,000-sq.-ft. facility employing an additional 50 workers.

Sandestin -- Canada's Intrawest Corp. has completed the $172-million pedestrian Village of Baytowne Wharf, a 28-acre complex in the Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort with 76,000 square feet of shopping and entertainment.

Steinhatchee -- The Taylor County Commission has approved The Conservancy, an $18-million, award-winning environmentally sensitive community development on 27 acres that will include 56 single-family units,an onsite wastewater facility and solar power generators.

Tallahassee -- Pensacola-based Granger Development will build The Tennyson, Tallahassee's first project approved under the city's new "urban planned unit development" zoning designation.
The proposed 13-story building, a five-minute walk from the Capitol, will include 86 condominiums priced from $200,000 to $900,000 as well as commercial retailers.

Florida State University has raised a record $107.2 million in private gifts this year, up 20% from last year's $88.8 million.

International Business

PENSACOLA -- Business and government leaders traveled to Cuba in early September to discuss renewing Cuban use of the Pensacola port to transport agricultural, pharmaceutical and medical goods. The delegates, including Rep. Jerry Maygarden, R-Pensacola, and Pensacola Port Director Chuck Porter, were unexpectedly invited to lunch with Fidel Castro, a six-hour affair in which Castro quizzed the representatives on northwest Florida crops, soils and beaches. Encouraged by the government's positive reception, officials are studying how best to adapt the port to Cuba's needs.

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