Government Outlaws No Trespassing Sign – on Private Beach!
Northwest Florida is largely inhabited by conservative folk who believe in private property and limited government under the Constitution. Nevertheless, officials in Walton County have been hammering both the First Amendment and property rights in an effort to gain control over private beach areas along the Gulf of Mexico.
One family is fed up with the government’s bullying. They’re fighting back in court.
Edward and DeLanie Goodwin purchased beachfront property in 1971 and built a house on the land in 1978. They own up to the Mean High Water Line; beyond that, the beach is public property. Thus, they own some dry sand beach area and use it for family enjoyment. They have also planted vegetation there to help protect and stabilize the dunes.
Unfortunately, some people who use the public beach don’t respect private property; that’s especially true during Spring Break when thousands of college students flock to the Panhandle beaches. The Goodwins have had to deal with littering, loud parties, and trespass on their land, even including entry into their house. Also, the county has driven its vehicles across their property.
Therefore, they put up signs to indicate their property boundary.
You wouldn’t think doing that could be illegal in the United States, but high-handed officials in Walton County, like many others across the country, don’t really care about the limits on their authority. In June of 2016, the county enacted an ordinance that bans all “obstructions” on the beach, including any sort of sign.
There’s a hidden motive behind that ordinance. In April the county contracted with private attorneys to research the possibility of establishing public access to dry sand areas like that owned by the Goodwins. The county learned that doing so was feasible but it would be necessary to show that public use had occurred often enough to be regarded as “customary.”
As the Goodwins’ complaint explains the action, “Some county officials and members of the public suggested that dry beaches, although privately owned, might be subject to public easements due to alleged public ‘customary’ use.”
If public beachgoers couldn’t be kept off the private property, then the claim of “customary use” might look persuasive. Thus the ordinance, by preventing people from posting “Private Property” and “No Trespassing” signs could lead to enough public use of the property to bring about the desired pubic easement.
One sign that the Goodwins placed reads, “If the County Wants My Private Beach for Public Use, It Must Pay Me for It – U.S. Constitution.”
What they’re referring to, of course, is the provision in the Fifth Amendment that when government takes private property for public use, it must pay just compensation to the owner. What Walton County is trying to pull off is a taking without compensation, and trampling upon the free speech rights of the property owners is part of the scheme.
If the First Amendment protects anything, it should be the freedom to inform others about a violation of it.
With the able assistance of the Pacific Legal Foundation, the Goodwin family intends to defend their rights.
Their attorney, Christina Martin, explains what is at stake in this op-ed published in the local paper: “The lawsuit by Edward and DeLanie Goodwin challenges the county’s assault on their First Amendment rights. But their ability to protect their privacy, personal safety, and property rights is also at stake. Indeed, the case highlights the fundamental connection between property rights and other core rights, such as freedom of speech. You can’t erode one, as Ronald Reagan said, without undermining others.”
After the Goodwins filed suit, the county suspended enforcement of its ordinance, which included hefty fines for non-compliance. It remains on the books, however.
But instead of backing away from the fight they provoked, county officials then passed a new ordinance declaring that the public may use private beach areas because it is supposedly “customary.” The problem is that it’s not customary and passing a law cannot make it so.
Evidently, county officials are prepared to spend considerable taxpayer funds to fight the Goodwins’ suit. If they do, they are apt to lose since the Supreme Court precedents against such interference with the First Amendment are strong. And under the applicable federal statute, if the plaintiff wins, the government will be liable for their costs. If so, many Walton County taxpayers who had nothing to do with this attack on the rights of beachfront owners will wind up paying for the arrogance of their elected officials.
At all levels, government poses constant threats to our rights and only through eternal vigilance, as Thomas Jefferson observed, can we protect them.
Let’s hope the Goodwins win and the county officials who care so little about the Constitution are voted out of office.
Originally published on Forbes.