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New beach legislation in Florida

A recent piece of legislation has raised a number of questions about beach access and beach ownership in Florida. Thomas Ruppert, Esq., is Florida Sea Grant’s Coastal Planning Specialist. I asked him what this law does and does not change for beach-goers.

Who owns the beach in Florida?

To answer this question, we need to divide the beach into two sections—the section seaward of the mean high tide line, and the section landward of that line. The state owns the seaward portion of the beach. The coastal property owner typically owns the portion of beach “above” the high tide line.

When sand has been added to nourish a beach, the mean high tide line will be affected by the sand placement. In this situation, the publicly-owned portion of the beach is seaward of the location of the mean high tide line prior to the nourishment activity. After the beach nourishment, we refer to this line as the “erosion control line.”

If a person’s property includes the upper part of the beach, does that mean they can fence it off?

If a person’s property extends onto the beach sand, that does not mean that the property owner can do whatever they want with that portion of beach. As with any other private property, state and local governments can regulate its use to protect the safety, health, and welfare of the public as well as protected wildlife species. Fencing on the beach may present hazards to the public and/or to protected sea turtles that nest on Florida’s beaches.

Can I walk/sit on the dry sand part of the beach if it is private property?

That depends.  Beach ownership and the right of the public to use the beach are two different things.

A 1974 legal case in Florida interpreted the law to mean that if the public had a history of using the beach, they should be granted an easement to do so. New legislation will take effect this July. This legislation says that only courts can decide which privately-owned beaches the public is entitled to use based on such established customary use. This legislation was proposed because some local governments had passed ordinances declaring that all their beaches were subject to an easement for customary public use. This new law clarifies that local governments will no longer be able to make such determinations. Instead, it reaffirms that 1974 case law stating that only a court can decide to issue an easement allowing public use of the beach based on historic access/use of that beach area.

What does this new legislation mean to beachgoers in Florida?

 Not much! It only clarifies the process by which public use easements can be granted.

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