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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org or at 228-282-2423. Twitter: NancyLBSmith