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Nancy Smith

In Walton County, Desperation Leads to Serious Political Missteps

November 3, 2018 - 6:00am
Playing politics with CU. Daniel Uhlfelder gave Andrew Gillum his CU sticker.
Playing politics with CU. Daniel Uhlfelder gave Andrew Gillum his CU sticker.

Walton County -- historically a quiet, dependable, conservative-leaning Panhandle hamlet -- keeps poking up in statewide news because of a contentious issue called “customary use” of the beaches. It’s dragged on for two years with no end in sight, because many folks expect appeals of whatever path is chosen.

Lo and behold, here Walton and its beaches are again, in the thick of one of the most critical state elections in decades.

On Wednesday, one of the two vocal agitators fighting for customary use “at any cost” put some egg on the chest of Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum in his race for governor.

It wasn’t Gillum’s fault. His attorney friend who used to live in Tallahassee, Daniel Uhlfelder, was just helping him get votes.

I Beg to DifferDid it amount to illegal electioneering? It looks that way to me, and to a lot of folks in Walton.

Uhlfelder is one of the most visible leaders of a new “pro-CU” non-profit called Florida Beaches for All. He’s also an attorney in a state famous for its strict advertising and ethics laws for licensed lawyers.

Uhlfelder attached one of the non-profit’s pro-CU stickers onto Gillum's chest at a campaign stop. Then he crowed about it on Facebook: “CU at the Governor’s Mansion." Gillum bravely wore that CU sticker throughout his entire speech at Harbor Docks. He also confirmed he would work to repeal or amend HB 631, the 2018 customary use bill, "to protect Walton County, which was targeted.” 

“CU at the Governor’s Mansion.” Get it? Cute.

The response on Facebook was immediate -- and, of course, divided. Then there were more measured comments mixed in, like this one: “Shame, when politics came into this it changed everything for me. I am no longer attending meetings, gathering affidavits or passing out stickers. It’s sad. I am going to sit back and let the courts decide this mess.” Others added, “On that we agree!”

The CU issue centers on whether the public has a right to use “dry sand” that shows up on surveys and property deeds, or does it interfere with private property rights, surveyed land and deeds showing otherwise? The law passed this year attempted to define the process to determine all that, to no one’s complete satisfaction.

Walton County commissioners have a public hearing on Saturday -- yes, Saturday -- as they lurch through a do-over from September. The county attorney missed a few beachfront owners who were required to be noticed, so thousands of beachfront owners had to be re-noticed. About 800 people packed a high school auditorium the first time. There was a live feed online for out-of-state property owners. Even though the county attorney announced at the time a new hearing had to be scheduled, people railed on anyway -- for more than five hours of public comment.

Walton commissioners are scheduled to decide whether to seek the required judicial hearing in order to get so-called “customary use” of the beaches back on the books. There are several options, including letting the litigation go forward separately.

The county alone has spent millions of dollars over two years, and there are multiple litigants in different courts on different legal aspects of customary use. Just one letter in September to the commissioners had seven lawyers copied, discussing how much time to allot for the plaintiff lawyers at the county hearing.

In the middle of it all, whipping the community into a frenzy, have been Uhlfelder and restauranteur Dave Rauschkolb. 

They’ve made noise on a lot of issues over the years -- but this time, they pulled in the local Realtors association. It covers Walton and Okaloosa counties. Read this story for more background.

Facing the Saturday hearing do-over, the community’s weariness is deepening while the rift between sides gets wider.

The legislation requiring a judicial hearing went into effect July 1. State Rep. Brad Drake, R-Eucheenna, tried to have town hall meetings to quell the upset, explaining why he cast different votes on different versions of the bill, as it bounced back and forth. Some for, some against. Residents didn’t really care. During the most chaotic meeting, some yelled out from the audience that they wanted to speak. It was streamed live online by several media outlets.

Other residents left saying they were more confused than when they arrived, or upset that their businesses revolving around the beach were now in jeopardy. Drake didn’t return several attempted calls.

Sen. George Gainer, R-Panama City, did vote against the final bill. Few others did. And certainly no other legislator on the Emerald Coast did. Why? Because local officials signed off on it.

Florida Beaches for All formed in August. Its current leaders were already informally collecting thousands of affidavits from residents and visitors who have “customarily” used the beaches for decades. They were urged to attach photos, showing the date and specific place on the beach they had used.

Having spun the community into a frenzy, Florida Beaches for All says it's facilitated and delivered more than 8,000 affidavits to the county attorney.

Most residents have begged off, because these are legal documents that might hold real legal responsibility later that no one has addressed. You sign an affidavit, you’re a witness, after all.

Some of the antics of the past few months have been made for social media click bait.

For instance, Uhlfelder even tried to force law enforcement’s hand, trying to get arrested for trespassing on a “private beach” in July. He said he wanted to “test the new law.”

The sheriff took the high road and diffused him -- not once, but several times. A sheriff’s deputy can be heard on one video saying, “We had this conversation yesterday, sir.” Ah, but Uhlfelder didn’t have someone over his shoulder taping it.

When that media spotlight dimmed, Uhlfelder escorted U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., onto the beach for a press conference. The entire Uhlfelder family stood behind Nelson.

What did Nelson say? That his opponent in the coming Senate election, Gov. Rick Scott, should call a special session to repeal the law or fix the legislation. Exactly what Uhlfelder just said Gillum has agreed to do.

The whole thing looked staged, because it was. People started to turn off.

It didn’t take long for the community to also realize a special irony: Both Uhlfelder and Rauschkolb live in residential developments that have private beach access protected by locked gates.

Uhlfelder, like Rauschkolb, is a founder of Florida Beaches for All, whose volunteer leaders must be, we hope, aghast at this potentially illegal gaffe with a candidate for governor.

It was a non-profit’s political endorsement, and likely violated electioneering laws, all in one sunny chest bump.

Here are the facts: Florida Beaches for All has staked out a position on the customary use legislation -- they can do that as a 501(c)(4) organization. What they can’t do is solicit for donations without a state-required, non-profit permit -- which they did for a month before getting the permit they needed to keep the operation legal. Uhlfelder, as the legal, registered agent for the non-profit, ought to know better.

Have a look at the nonprofit's Check-a-Charity financial reporting statement. Of the $22,500 Florida Beaches for All lists as revenue, 89 percent, or $18,750 has been spent on "program services expenses." What program services? Not the affidavits, I hope. Those are free.

We also wonder if they’ve been remitting state sales taxes on all the merchandise and T-shirts they sell.

Uhlfelder uses this CU issue for free advertising in regular Facebook posts: “Come sign an affidavit for customary use in our office!” (Where you can pick up a tee?)

Meanwhile, ECAR, the local Realtors group, helped start Florida Beaches for All -- and even hosted its first community meeting. Some of its members are upset with the group for getting so pointedly involved in the CU issue. None of them would go on the record, but many have posted strong displeasure on the local Facebook page.

Some very successful Realtors have advertised (and made money off of) “private beach access” on their listings and are now active advocates in the “fight” for customary use, residents point out.

Real estate closings with surveys showing deeded dry sand helped the problem develop over years.

Others point out that the county government has allowed a series of “quiet title” closings that made the situation even worse, while simultaneously spending millions of dollars in tourism marketing for just 26 miles of beach with too few public accesses.

The local owners of the Scenic Sotheby's office wrote a letter July 2 to the Emerald Coast Association of Realtors, documenting its unease with the professional association’s stance. The letter is reproduced on this page. ECAR plowed ahead anyway.

In September I asked Tom Butler, public policy communications director, for the state Realtors group, if the organization, which always has supported private property rights, now is siding with the customary use movement in Walton County? (Until recently, Liz McMaster, president of the Emerald Coast Association of Realtors, was listed on the Florida Beaches for All website as a board member.) 

Keith Dean, chief executive officer of ECAR and his chief operating officer, Josh Summers, are also deeply involved in Florida Beaches for All and the customary use movement. No wonder Butler got back to me with a terse one-liner:  "At this time we are going to decline to comment on the issue."

While everyone seems to have lost interest in the antics of a scant few, many fear the atmosphere they’ve created -- without a clearly researched plan -- has ingrained strife for 65,000 year-round residents.  

Some days in the past 6 months -- even after the most powerful hurricane on record to hit the panhandle missed Walton County by a whisker -- the two most vocal compatriots have posted or commented dozens of times in a single day through multiple feeds. They swerve from defensive to cheerful, depending on the comment. Uhlfelder often says, “I’m a registered Republican” (not in his heart, folks), or “I don’t need a Stanford degree to know ... ,” while Rauschkolb is a consistent soldier of the damn-the-torpedoes approach -- "win at any cost.” 

The Gillum gaffe this week may have put the pro-CU group’s credibility -- and standing -- in quicksand.

Longtime Floridians will remember the gentle nature of the late Gov. LeRoy Collins.

Collins knew when he needed to right a wrong, or admit a mistake. In fact, he is credited with helping create a “New South.”

Some nice folks in Walton County might need to stand up and create a “New Walton” -- before The Dave and Danny Show either gets them all in real trouble, or gets them written off forever at the state Capitol.

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

Comments

ECAR has ZERO business meddling in this CU issue. All of us Realtors who are members stand to lose here!! Membership in ECAR is a necessity if you need access to the MLS system to post listing or research listings. Many Many Many of us support property owners. Mr. Dean needs to keep himself at the office instead of pretending that we all support this movement! Mr. Dean has nothing to lose since he isn’t even a realtor. We pay your salary so stop running around the country pretending we all support you. I would personally like to see some of ya file suit against ECAR for using our membership dues in this manner!!!

I could not agree more. I had a conversation with three realtors I know about this very topic. I think a suit may be the answer.

Looks like the CU sticker is the new "A". Scarlet Letter for both Gillum and Nelson. Both LOSERS last night, thank God.

And the Dave and Daniel show immediately the next morning had posted instructions on the community page to check your vote. When people responded their vote wasn't showing, Daniel told them to call him, PM him or email his law office instead of advising to contact the SOE. These two clowns are beyond pathetic. When will the good citizens of Walton county tell them enough is enough?

This issue never existed about 6 to 8 years ago... It only started up AFTER the Oil Spill and After Hurricane K. TDC then mass marketed our area to outside the usual demographics and brought in a less than desired crowd. Low rent, low class and low down. Thanks Dawn M. and Scott Brannon. Still have some gift cards? The affluent families of the past quickly caught on to this and opted to leave and spend their money elsewhere. Which they now do. They have moved on. We now get a lower class of vacation renter and while large rental management companies will tell you just the opposite, but they do not track occupancy.... Walton County has NO occupancy restrictions. If you have a two bed / two bath condo, nothing (outside the Condo or Homeowners Association Rules) prevents you from packing them in. Condo and HOA rules are rarely enforced, they are difficult to to so and only result in fines to the OWNERS who blow them off as there is no collection policy (Lien Rights) in most cases. If you don't believe me about occupancy, call South Walton Fire District and speak with Marshal Sanchez. We are seeing what has been predicted for years and years in this area. Disintegration of our clientèle and some of our owners that rent. Becoming PCB of the past years, in less than desirable times (shootings, rapes, drunkenness, drugs, MTV, etc.). We now see subdivisions being built north of 98 and everyone is now entitled to a beach, because "my Realtor told me so..." Hey, we have numerous public beaches and several state parks with MILES of beach. Get off your lazy entitled As# and go to one. Why should a property owner with a legal deed have to share anything with you? Can I go up to north of DeFuniak and walk around on a private lake? Can I go to Walton County Attorney "Sid" Noyes' "Private" dock on the bay and fish? She has a dock on the bay and lives in Freeport. Better yet, how about I go to Sheriff Mike Adkinson's house in South Walton and have a picnic in his front yard? Does any of that sound like its a good idea or a valid argument for my doing so? (Please note, the aforementioned were used for example purposes only and no physical addresses where provided). This will cost our area Millions of $$$ and will continue to create a divide between the north and south parts of the County. Both Dave R. and Dan U., look to position themselves to take full advantage of this... Perfectly planned, its a win / win regardless of the outcome. I have lived her for 18 years and have NEVER had any issue on the beach from east to west and vice versa while I walk, fish or swim. NONE!!! This is a Taking of Private Property and I will tell you that the Supreme Court of the United States of America will not allow that, unless by Eminent Domain, which I still wonder why was never looked into and simply offer a fair rate to the property owner for their private property. Here's to about 5 to 10 years of chaos in SoWal. Golden Goose is about to be killed and cooked, so get some of the dark meat, its the best, especially crispy.... Happy Thanksgiving a bit early.

Here Here!!

Wow, do you need a tissue with this...?

No matter what side you are on with this, it is just a poorly written, bad intentioned law.

Nonetheless it is still a LAW!!

It follows the legal requirements to establish CU outlined in previous court cases. What's missing is a provision to provide legal cost relief and damages to the property owner if the government entity loses.

Will the public be allowed up to the owners back porch when there is no more dry sand?

I wonder how many of the average voters who support this abomination think of themselves as socialist? Most probably are convinced that this theft is in some way suppose to be for their benefit. The only winners if this goes through are the politicians and a few of there wealthy and politically friends. I guess it is very hard to see yourself as, attributed to Vladimir Lenin, one of the "useful idiots".

Dan U is the Barack Hussein Obama of South Walton. Socialism is alive and well, now he's buddy's with a fraud under investigation by the feds in Tally and running for Governor... God help us all. CU is going to come bite all its supporters right in the A$S before its all said and done.

Well written exposing the true colors and self serving left wing agenda. T Shirt sales and drinks on the dry sand of Seaside courtesy of Dave. Worse these two are WC commissioners that hid behind the disguise of "beach renouriishment" to try to take claim to the private beaches. No owner had private property signs up or even gave a thought to visitors walking and enjoying anywhere on the beach. Yes, the County created this divisiveness and these two characters look to profit from it. Yes, profit from it. Dave was surprised that there was no confrontation on his this sand is your sand. The reason is you marched the west sand and you really are not as important as you think you are. (Or as tall)

You are correct on the walk. Nothing happened because nothing usually does. When you poke and provoke, like Dan U., has done, you'll get a response from property owners... Dave and Dan and their Socialist friends will soon realize that their actions have consequences (some of which are unintended)...

It's a socialist conspiracy. James Lince? Tell us what you think?

Okay, I see my name. Which comment do you attribute to me? All of them?? WRONG. This is my only comment on this article. Excellent article and I love Nancy. She nailed it again. Anyone who knows me, knows I consistently sign my name to newspaper articles, social media and comments here on the excellent Sunshinestatenews. There was no need for me to comment as so many have stated what I would have said. Thanks all for protecting liberty in America! I'll meet any serious adult at McTeague's for a spirited debate face to face, I would prefer it, but only if invited. I'm on Facebook - pm me. If I'm in town I'll look at you right in the eye and tell you exactly what I think and you can do the same - that's what real men do.

The "schuyster" and the "pretend African", WE need NEITHER OF THEM IN WALTON !

Not Joe but blessed sued and lost. Waltons CU Ordinace was intact. Along comes HB 631 saying Walton was void, so much for home rule. Tallahassee on behalf of those who lost Blessey....those who lost again with Stop the Beach Renourisjment Inc v Florida...Now they say we must go to court again with preconceived constraints on judges? We say ---- again? CU has existed for some 5000 years here

Guess what. CU has existed in all of Florida and all of the US for a long time. I cannot wait to stake out in the five commissioner's back yards and enjoy their property, as CU should be for all of the US. Bye bye private property rights everywhere.

So, the Walton County Board of Commissioners supporting the process of re-establishing Customary Use moves forward in a 5 to 0 vote in today's hearing. Something like 13,000 affidavits were collected, more than Nassau County and reams of evidence submitted that people have used the beaches of South Walton for eons. The old, new narrative of Beachfront owners lawyers is compromise. Gillum is in favor of public beaches DeSantos won't comment. This helps Gillum. The subject of this article is "Serious politics missteps" in the Sunshine State News tiny bubble. Gillum is on the right side of this issue. Can't agree with Nancy this time.

That’s ridiculous. Classic Dave and Dan type of post above. You are not refuting anything in the article with your comment, it’s just bombblasting something you don’t agree with. Did he get way out there and use the realtors endorsement to influence an election? Is he using this issue to drum up business? Is the county attorney really handling this well? All good questions.............. That’s the job of an opinion media person to ask. Oh wait maybe you think this is all fake news. I was there at some of these events mentioned. It is a good rehash of what we in Walton county know already and a few things I didn’t that I’m glad I do now.

Yet another poorly written, one sided poor excuse for a story. How much do the beachfront owners pay you to write this ?

What a vile piece of propaganda. "On Wednesday, one of the two vocal agitators fighting for customary use ..." One of two agitators? The homeowners lost in court so they got their cronies to pass the huckabill. Your piece is fake news meant to breed rage and divisiveness. Of course the media has a perverse incentive to do so...at any cost.

You all keep talking about Huckabee well he’s an easy target and as hundreds of people in Walton have pointed out, he has never had words with anyone behind his house or asked them to move- all of his neighbors even liberals all say that he is a good neighbor . But That’s how you have distracted us all from the real motivation of this all along of tricking people into helping you with the serious circus these past months. This stuff may be an opinion piece but so what. Does it accurately reflect the situation here- ? Hell yes. We are not friends with Huckabee and do not live in a beachfront community that has gated beach access like ol Dave and Dan. They are the living embodiment of Hypocrites and that’s a nice word. They created the rage here in our county. ALL BY THEMSELVES.

The law is bad public policy for everyone....except a privileged few. Repeal it.

Joe, serious question. What if there’s a repeal? Then what? I don’t want to pay more taxes for 6 years of litigation.

Carefully worded defense of white racism.

Huh?????

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