This Spring, St. Johns County residents along with visitors across the county flocked to an area of a state protected beach in Guana State Park. With help from national news coverage, the visitors came to lay eyes on a 48-foot section of a once sunken ship which is believed to date to the 1700’s. Had this amazing artifact washed up later this year on a privately-owned stretch of beach subject to an ordinance establishing the customary public use of that part of the beach, the passing of House Bill 631 on March 8, 2018 could have allowed a private owner of beach to prevent the public from viewing the wreckage.
House Bill 631 limits the government’s ability to infringe upon privately held stretches of our beaches. While the state generally owns the property under navigable waters up the mean high-water mark, private citizens can own land down to the mean high-water mark. According to the Florida House of Representative’s final analysis on the Bill, a governmental entity is now prohibited from adopting or keeping in effect an ordinance or rule establishing customary use of privately owned dry sand areas. Furthermore, a governmental entity seeking to establish the customary use of privately owned lands is required to adopt, at a public hearing, a formal notice of intent, provide notice to affected parcel owners, and file a complaint with the circuit court to determine whether the land is subject to the customary use doctrine.
The passage of the Bill came after our courts became flooded with cases concerning the government’s ability to limit or infringe upon private ownership of portions of the beach. An example of the types of cases the Bill seeks to prevent is a Volusia County lawsuit which challenged the governments’ ability to establish beach driving lanes over privately held portions of beach. Courts will still have a role in deciding whether customary use of privately held beach trumps private land rights, but will act more as a check on whether the government is properly claiming a customary use of privately held beach. If a shipwreck washed ashore upon a section of privately owned beach where the government’s argument for customary use failed, those seeking to enjoy a first-hand glimpse of the ship wreck could be considered trespassers!
Let’s hope the next shipwreck doesn’t wash up on area of beach subject to House Bill 631.