With more than 8,000 miles of shoreline and 1,300 miles of sand, Florida is a beach lover’s paradise. From the sugar-white expanses of the panhandle to the shell-lined sands of Sanibel and the rocky coastal beaches of the Keys, you are never more than 60 miles from a beach in Florida. Three of America’s top ten beaches are located in the Sunshine State, and visitors from all over the world make Florida beaches an annual destination—over 75 million of them on average.
The only thing better than visiting a Florida beach might be living on one. A large segment of Florida’s 18.8 million population has the ocean as a front yard. But is that front yard private? Who owns the beach access, and who is responsible for the safety and privacy of the residents and/or guests?
In a 1999 issue of the Journal of Land & Environmental Law by S. Brent Spain, the topic of beach access is discussed at length as it pertains to an earlier lawsuit. In the 1974 case, City of Daytona v. Tona-Rama, Inc., the Florida Supreme Court recognized the doctrine of “custom” as the means to establish public rights to dry sand areas for traditional recreational use.
It was argued that in the absence of state legislation adequately preserving beach access for the public, local government should be responsible for ordinances protecting the public’s customary right to use the dry sand areas of the beach. It literally comes down to a line in the sand as Florida recognizes the mean high water line as the acceptable boundary between public trust land and private property. While the mean high water line is an ever changing and fictional line, it is recognized as a legal point of demarcation. If the public has customarily had access to the beach area, then that access must be recognized and taken into account when changes and developments are proposed and executed.
The developer is mandated with maintaining perpendicular access for the public, or the access from the roadway to the public segment of the beach. Horizontal access refers to the public’s right to walk along the beach below, or parallel to the mean high-tide line. Wet sand beach area below the mean high water line, is held by the state and therefore in trust for all.