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