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Nancy Smith

Walton County Customary-Use Leaders Playing a Dangerous Game

September 8, 2018 - 6:00am

Nowhere in Florida is the new law dealing with beach access the firestorm it has become in Walton County. The reason is complicated. But many folks along the panhandle's Emerald Coast claim it's not helping that a pair of local crusaders have a lot of citizens convinced House Bill 631 is the worst thing to befall Florida since Mercury went retrograde.

In the last month Dave Rauschkolb and Daniel Uhlfelder -- brothers in activism -- have made themselves the pied pipers of HB 631 repeal -- whipping people up to sign affidavits, attend meetings, donate money -- in a nutshell, "make Florida beaches public for all." 

Rauschkolb is a restaurateur, Uhlfelder an attorney. Together they're what former seasonal Seaside resident Lilly Bell calls "a tag team," dominating social media and public meetings to get people riled up against each other.

"Walton used to have only a handful of beachfront residents who wanted to enforce their privacy all the way to the water," said the retired interior decorator. "But most of them didn't care if people sat on their sand. Then Dave and Dan came along and caught a glimpse of the fame and attention they could get nationally. Now we have a civil war here."

The war, she said, is between the "coastal elites" -- residents, guests and tourists who live or vacation along 30A, the scenic beach road, -- and the rest of Walton County.

Bill Nelson showed up
Bill Nelson showed up

Bell told Sunshine State News, "All you need is a camera, and (Rauschkolb and Uhlfelder) come running. They need to control people. They like to hear themselves talk and read what they write on Facebook. I think they're on some kind of power trip. My late husband called them a tag team."

HB 631, was sponsored by Sen. Kathleen Passidomo, R-Naples, and Rep. Katie Edwards-Walpole, D-Plantation. The bill passed the Florida Legislature with an overwhelming bipartisan majority and 100 percent support of the Walton County delegation -- 29-7 March 6 in the Senate and 95-17 March 8 in the House. That's a total of 24 votes against in the whole of the Legislature. No wonder the governor didn't veto it. Why would he?

Uhlfelder believes the legislation was a sneak attack -- that Walton was deliberately excluded until it was too late to fight back. Which is why I was disappointed Rep. Brad Drake, R-DeFuniak Springs never returned my call. I would have liked to ask him why he or the county's stable of lobbyists  didn't point out 631 to County Administrator Larry Jones, at the very least. 

Jones, incidentally, did his Master's thesis in customary use.  Perhaps he might explain how he could let the county adopt an incomplete and unacceptable customary-use ordinance.

Meanwhile, Rauschkolb and Uhlfelder were discovering the high-theater potential of private property rights vs. customary use. They made customary use their next fight for justice.

Rauschkolb, who owns three restaurants in Seaside and a bakery/cafe/catering company in Grayton Beach, is used to getting things done. He takes credit for what he calls "game-changing community initiatives" including keeping high-rise condos out of South Walton, founding Hands Across The Sand (to stop offshore oil drilling in Florida); lobbying to remove the Confederate flag from the DeFuniak Springs courthouse, launching an effort to incorporate South Walton, and now something he calls "Stand Your Sand" -- a take-off of Stand Your Ground and an initiative for customary use of Florida’s beaches.

Uhlfelder, son of prominent Tallahassee lobbyist Steve Uhlfelder, has worked as a law clerk, staff aide in The White House, in the U.S. Attorney General’s Office, the U.S. Senate, and the U.S. House of Representatives. Now he has his own general law practice on 30A in Grayton Beach. Among his causes, he says he has worked avidly to bring down the Confederate flag. And he believes creating a 501(c)(4) non-profit organization called Florida Beaches for All (FBFA) is the way to "overturn bad law and give citizens the fundamental right to use and enjoy all our beaches. ... I was raised in an environment where you stood up for things, not on the sidelines," he said during a telephone interview.

Uhlfelder made national news in July, the weekend after Gov. Rick Scott signed an emergency order supporting open beaches. And that's when his mushroom started to grow -- away from compromise, closer to a move for legislation repeal.

Uhlfelder challenged the new law two days in a row -- some say he was trying to get arrested for trespassing on private sand, but he claims he was "just trying to get a line drawn in the sand" so he would know where he could legally park his beach chair. The second day, when a security guard called the Sheriff's Department, Uhlfelder made sure his experience was recorded on YouTube and displayed on Facebook. The video went viral, gaining more than 100,000 views on YouTube alone and well over 1 million views across social  media platforms. (The video is displayed on this page.)

In addition, Rauschkolb was interviewed on the Weather Channel, which serves millions of viewers across America. National Public Radio showed up on the beach soon after. So did U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, looking for an opportunity to kick the governor, his senatorial opponent in November. And between the two proactive "protests" -- Uhlfelder's and Rauschkolb's and what has been described as "dozens of media interview requests," Walton's war for the beach had begun.

But some in the county, even the ones who don't live on the beach, have begun to grumble about what this customary-use movement is doing to their jewel of a county, and wonder if there might have been a more civil way for the two sides to come together.

Here are some of the disturbing aspects to Walton's situation:

The Conspiracy Theory. You don't often find a tin foil hat on a liberal, but Uhlfelder, the registered Republican for voting convenience only, sure is wearing one. This leader so many customary-use advocates are counting on has a conspiracy theory that goes straight to the top. He feels certain Walton County, where the suspicious "Governor Mike Huckabee" is a beach-owning resident, is being victimized by powerful dark forces. Uhlfelder is convinced "right-wing groups" -- for example, the Koch Brothers and the private property rights law firm Pacific Legal Foundation -- have hatched a plot at the highest level to  make customary use unconstitutional and to privatize every inch of beach in America. "It's close," he told me. "They could do this in two years." 

The Hypocrite Factor. Rauschkolb and Uhlfelder both live in communities with gated private beach access. Dave lives in fully-gated Watersound, Dan in Watercolor. To challenge the law and make his YouTube video, Uhlfelder had to contrive his beach outing to Vizcaya -- travel down to the end of 30A more than seven miles away, past some nine beach access points, when he had his own beach. Reading recent Facebook postings, the deception isn't sitting well with some residents.

Using the Sheriff.  Sheriff Mike Adkinson and his deputies are slap-bang in the middle of the dispute. Adkinson is the right sheriff at the right time for on-the-spot conflict resolution -- patient, good with people, wanting desperately not to arrest anybody for trespassing. "I'm not proferring an opinion of customary use," he said. "My job is to make sure we're not being arbitrary and capricious in the way we apply the law. A sheriff's office should never be the tool to resolve this. ... But I can tell you this: All these people who say 'we're saving the beaches'? No, they're not. The only place this is going to be decided is in court."

Overlooking the Good Guys. Some 90 percent of Walton's beachfront property owners are embarrassed and offended to be lumped in with the 10 percent erecting signs and stringing up ropes to keep people off the sand. They don't mind well-behaved trespassers, as their presence on county Facebook sites attests. I asked Uhlfelder if he would entertain compromise instead of repeal. He said no. "You know what compromise is, don't you? It's money. They want us to pay for our own sand." 

Affecting Tourism. Last year Walton welcomed 4.5 million visitors. Because of such strong tourism, the county records the lowest adjusted property tax rate in Florida. But 2018 might not be as strong if the compulsory-use battle continues. I asked VISIT FLORIDA Marketing Director Meagan Dougherty, by phone and by email, what affect, if any, the beach-access publicity was having on Walton tourism. She did not respond. But another VISIT FLORIDA official answered my question on condition of anonymity. "Hospitality industry people in Northwest Florida are telling us reservations are down and cancellations are up," the official said. "Of course they are. The national media got hold of a story that's telling the nation Florida's beaches are closed."

Fast, Loose and Frightening. Dan Uhlfelder is a lawyer. Florida Beaches for All is his baby. So, wouldn't you think he would make a priority of protecting the reputations of the people and organizations bundling under the FBFA umbrella? Last I looked, the non-profit 1) hadn't registered as a 501(c)(4) and 2) wasn't collecting Department of Revenue sales tax on the T-shirts and tank tops it's selling. (CORRECTION: FBFA is registered as a non-profit and must answer to the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, not the Department of Revenue. I apologize for the error. But the issue is this: The charity is not registered with the state to solicit contributions at this time. That requires a permit FBFA does not have. When FBFA does apply, and their name appears on the "Check-a-Charity Florida" website, I will write a follow-up story to confirm the legal changes have been made.) 

Deception, Confusion. Hundreds of Walton Countians are expected to show up at today's public hearing on customary use at South Walton High School with signed and notorized affidavits. But when they do, many of them might discover they've been misled.

'You mean, our affidavits aren't going to get us back our use of the beaches?" Walton visitor Daniel Flyer asked me.

Flyer said he was led to believe the affidavit he signed and had notorized was as good as a petition to repeal the law. Which is what Uhlfelder is urging. He didn't fully realize the hearing was a county meeting set by commissioners to gather evidence of customary use -- citizens' use of the beaches over a period of 20 years -- so the county can prepare an ordinance that complies with the judicial process laid out in the new Florida law.

No wonder Flyer's misunderstanding makes sense. If you plan to repeal, why would you need to complete the county's affidavit?

Reach Nancy Smith at nsmith@sunshinestatenews.com or at 228-282-2423. Twitter: NancyLBSmith 

Comments

You have no clue what your even speaking of. I have openly admitted in my RE career I have maybe once or twice written the word private. Maybe. Not even sure about that. And, if I did I meant private as in secluded. My background and history would tell anyone I support CU. Also, I did not vote for Jones. Fwiw, if any buyer on the gulf feels I duped them I will gladly purchase the property back for what they paid for it. Please post your address and I will offer up a purchase for what was paid. I will need 30-45 days to close and of course standard inspection periods will apply. I don’t plan on running anywhere Andy. Been here a long time and plan on being here much longer. I will continue to fight for what I believe in and I don’t need a group or ECAR behind me to do so. So, if I have duped you or you know someone I have duped PLEASE get me their address so I can get them out of this position ASAP.

I'm sure - I have the AD which says "Private Beach".

So let me be clear, which do I ask my Realtor for, a personal or professional opinion? Which is required by ECAR? Is there a code of ethics to follow? I'm confused as I am supposed to trust my state licensed professional to represent me regardless...

Just how much beach front property has Bobby J. Sold under false pretenses? It's a fair question.

I am a founding board member for Surfrider foundation. Surfrider at that time stood for 3 things. 1. The public Beach rights, 2. Beach access. 3. Clean water ways. I have sold a lot of properties Bert. Like 50-70 a year for 20 years. Not as much beach front as I would have liked though. I have always stated my personal belief. A buyer or seller has to take it from there. I believe in my career I know of maybe one time I used the word private. I regret using the word and have publicly admitted to this. Looking back on the word I should have said secluded. The person I know that is most upset still has a very secluded area that is very hard to access. I am not perfect and may have made a mistake. But, if you know me and know what I have worked on for years you would know what I stand for and always try to do the right thing.

The internet is forever ... enough said. Listing Agent Bobby Johnson: 2015 Property Overview - This "Old Florida" style cottage is located in one of the most desirable gated communities south of Scenic Hwy 30A. I will get back to the charm of this eclectic, tucked away property but have to point out that 1 lot over takes you to about 100 steps of a shaded, native flora boardwalk to probably the most private beach of 30A. This beach is never crowded and I cannot think of many other South Walton Beaches that can make that claim. Apr 2012 "With nearly 1 mile of private beach, and some of the most breath-taking beach views along 30A. This adorable condominium offers the..." Oct 26, 2014 "passing by on 30A one might not at first recognize the breadth and scope of this gulf front town. What first appears to be a relatively small community unfolds into a sprawling 500 acres, once off of 30A. Neighboring Seaside Florida, Watercolor claims it’s place along Western Lake and Point Washington State Forest. Winding through it’s wide streets, it is immediately evident that nearly half of Watercolor is dedicated to open community space and preservation areas. Styled in Florida vernacular architecture this master planned community features a tennis club, boat club, dining, spa, retail, gardens, parks and an Inn. With 1400 feet of private beach and ingress / egress on 30A and SR395, it’s obvious why Watercolor is an easy top-choice for investment, residence and as a tourism destination."

Wow... what a hypocrite (the Realtor).

Hello James Lince. Nice work with the source material on this article.

The law crystalizes what is obvious. Florida's legislature is not on your side. It hasn't been for years. It refuses to honor and enforce constitutional amendments passed by strong majorities of Floridians (Amendment 1 use of funds from doc stamps to buy environmentally sensitive lands, School class size, Medical Marijuana). It does what the lobbyists tells it to do, and when that benefits the public it is strictly by accident. The author claims it's a dangerous game for free beach activists, just as she criticized old Maggie Hurchalla. These people are doing things to benefit and protect the public. Do you really think Maggie had any personal gain other than clean water for your grandchildren? Ban commercial uses (renting of chairs), enact effective sound ordinances, rigorously enforce litter laws, but leave the beaches alone.

This is NOT written by a Russian troll!

This issue has been a threat to our local economy and quality of life for a long time. Private Beachfront owners started throwing no trespassing signs up and some, using a little known legal maneuver called "quiet title" to claim they own the sand to the waterline. Sand they pay no taxes on; the land is unbuildable so there is no tax south of the coastal construction line. No, his is not a new issue. With their lawyers they have gradually over the past 10 years executed a methodical plan to deny customary use of our beaches. They are upset now that people are objecting to their actions. Resorting to personal attacks on us shows we are being heard. The beaches of Florida have been a shared resource for centuries. Our economy is dependent on not only beach access but beach use, Customary Use for all Floridians and the guests who visit here and pump billions into our beach economies. Yes I am a vocal advocate for preserving public beaches. Currently with the new law, HB 631 if you own a beach home that you rent out within walking distance of some of our public beach accesses there is now only a narrow strip of sand your renters may use. Our local economy is mostly made up of beach rental homes. We only have a few hotels. Those homes that are near those beach access are likely not going to rent as often and those property values will drop. The only property values that will go up will be beachfront owners now that they have private beaches. Is that fair to the public? The Beachfront owners blame the county for adopting a customary use ordinance exactly as St. Johns and Volusia counties have. Like they did something wrong by guaranteeing the public would have the use of all of our beaches without harassment. We should praise our County for looking out for us. This is not a new development. Here is an article I wrote back in May of 2016 in the Tallahassee Democrat predicting this tragedy. We need our Governor or future Governor to work with the legislature to repeal HB631 and write Customary Use of our beaches into law so All Floridians may continue to enjoy our Florida beaches as a the shared resource they have been for centuries. https://www.tallahassee.com/story/opinion/2016/05/25/time-make-stand-sand/84926000/

Why does your residence have a private beach? Gate Code please?

"Former seasonal Seaside resident" was really the best dissenting person you could find to interview? This article is riddled with mistruths with the clear intention to mislead, and reads like a scorned ex wrote it. How unfortunate and unprofessional.

100%. This is exactly what I though while reading it.

I am the former seasonal Seaside resident & I resent your words. Riddled with what mistruths? Be specific, Daniel. This is you isn't it Daniel?????

Sissie?

You personally called for peace yesterday at the official meeting, yet you now troll posters??? Let them post, you are just offended that this article took your ass to school along with Danny Boy and it is true! You actually are a hypocrite and a bad one!!!! Sorry you don't have ALL the media supporting you. Two side to each story and I'd like to hear them. I was going to be in favor of CU, but now not so sure... You have not intended a peaceful resolution which is why I HOPE WCSO has a plan for 2019... Shame on you Rauschkolb!

Why do you hide behind a name like BS Artist? Are you not confident enough to give your real name as you throw around opinions and deal out shame anonymously? I am not hiding behind a fake name spewing vitriol. In fact I have been respectful; nothing wrong with trying to find out who is speaking. Who are you really sir/ma'am? Why hide? Come out out in the "Sunshine"; it's the Sunshine News right?

The name is meant to be a poke at you... You define it to a T. Sunshine will shine when you allow access to your Private Beach Dave.

I literally used my full name Lilly. There are plenty of people who still live here, full time even, that disagree with Dave and Daniel that she could have interviewed. Instead, she chose someone who has a clear personal vendetta that doesn't even live here. I'm guessing that you have something against Dave from a previous issue and saw this as an opportunity to speak ill of him and get some attention?

Now you want a civil compromise? I take offense to to your opinions and motives of others. I am a republican. ..and yes for voting reasons. When SCOTUS Kavanaugh gets ahold of this case and he will because it is a big issue in Cali...he will cite precendence on precedence. Rock on Dave and Jeff . "This sand is your sand, this sand is my sand...

If you do not want oil rigs within sight of your home on the beach than you should be in favor of allowing public access to the beaches. Because it's the same thing in the respect that we need to do whats best for the tourists. Tourists are why you do not pay a state income tax and tourists are why you do not see oil rigs out of your beach windows. Tourists will quit coming to Florida if we allow Beach Hogs in Florida. Tourists trump your important @zz, all the money you made, and your desire to keep tourists off the beach in front of your house.

Dave and Don are to be commended for supporting the public's customary use. Anyone who grew up around can attest to the fact the beaches have always been used by the public. This article is a hack job.

I am one of the many local Realtors frustrated with how the Association is handling this issue. While I will agree this article is more opinion, I actually learned a great deal from this write-up that gives me even more cause for concern about what's really going on. I have come to the conclusion that I think Realtors are getting played in this David and Dan show. It started with the local Realtors' endorsements in the county commission races. A small committee endorsed very publicly for thousands of members. Normally that wouldn't be a problem except for this...those endorsements were based on two candidates being FOR customary use of the beaches. Well, all 4 candidates were FOR it. How do you explain that. That was odd. Now, we are a part of a paid lobbying effort to repeal this bill? Seriously? Are we for customary use or against it? We can't make up our minds. I'm not even going to get into some of the other things happening in the Association. I'm very concerned for the group, as this will take years to sort out through all the legal cases and appeals.

I also thought, Wow, all the commissioners are for it. So what's the problem? I guess theres a differenve btw what they say (appeals to the voters) and what they do (appeals to their donor$)

Let's see, Dave and Dan, double DD, spent last weekend publicly pushing the mob's buttons to deliberately bully and directly destroy a family under false pretense, and have the confidence to walk into that meeting and tell everyone we should get along. The poor sheep that follow these frauds are being lied to. I hope the school principal and DD pay huge civic penalties for their false attack on a fine family last Sunday. Private property on beach has always been the law and process for at least the last 40 years. We just didn't have this fame hungry duo out there assaulting private owners so those BFO's are forced to react. There have been signs and ropes, and sherriff moving trespassers, for decades. It wasn't a big problem til these two manufactured the frenzy with their constant drumbeat and iPhones. Now they have succeeded in driving a wedge in our community out of thin air. There has never been customary use under the law. The county wished it in, but didn't follow proper process. But they (DD) have convinced their entitled marchers that someone stole something from them. Most BFO's, >95%, have never had a problem concerning the public. I use the beach daily and often on private beach, with no problem, just like the rest of the county. It's the way it's always been. It works, with a little respect. Not what you hear from DD. The county has failed to buy beach proportionate to the growth in use that they've approved/promoted. The Commissioner friendly beach chair vendors have eliminated what's left of beach. Look to the commissioners Walton, its easily fixed. Get these two DD bafoons out of your way Walton, and get back to being neighbors. Let these two fantasize about their fame on social media, not the political positions they are hoping to gain as a result of this charade. Attorneys and business owners are expected to have ethics...

You put your best writing at the end of this?!!! "Get these two baffoons (Dave Rauschkolb and Dan Ulfelder) out of your way Walton County, and get back to being neighbors. Let these two fantasize about their fame on social media, not the political positions they are hoping to gain as a result of this charade. Attorneys and business owners are expected to have ethics."

It makes no sense to me why the county or state doesnt retain a Right of way for atleast a hundred ft off the water. Its obvious hb631 was purposly set to cause havock and keep our eyes on. So it should concern us to watch what else is "Really" going on. Watch these power hungry wolves they will gladly sacrifice our beautiful beaches,our way of life even our freedom to feed there power ego. They are not ur friend. Im afraid the "Big City" dubochry has made its way here . Soon as they have fed off us for all we have they will go find another place to ruin at locals expence.

Pathetic piece of writing by someone who is attacking men who have stepped up to the plate to defend everyday people’s right to continue to use the beaches that have been used for centuries. If you can’t defend your position with facts, attack the people on the front line. I can guess who really wrote this piece of propaganda. This is a fight for the very heart and soul of Walton County.

I agree. Dave and Daniel have been our heroes in the fight to preserve the beaches for everyone. This person is no journalist but an opinion columnist.

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nancy smith
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