It would be foolish to deny the public access to hundreds of thousands of acres of waterfront property in a misguided attempt to clarify where state waterways end and private property begins. But that would happen under bills working their way through the Legislature. More civic-minded lawmakers should halt this land grab that could cut off access for hunting, fishing, swimming and other public activities.
HB 1103 and SB 1362 would change the definition of the "ordinary" high mark that acts as the dividing line in Florida between navigable waters held by the state in public trust and upland property that belongs to private owners. Florida assumed title to lands under the navigable waters upon becoming a state in 1845, and the state has a duty to preserve them for navigation, swimming, fishing and other legal public uses.
Under existing law, the water line is the "ordinary or normal reach" of water during the high-water season. The proposed bills would change that definition so the public property would no longer include areas where the water rises along the shoreline due to the rain. The dry season — not the wet — would determine the boundary between public and private property. That could privatize between 100,000 and 500,000 acres of shoreline now being used by hunters, canoeists, campers and others. And it would allow anyone interested in developing the property for use as a marina or other for-profit venture to avoid paying the state for a submerged lands lease.
The courts have established that the high water mark can be established by several measures, such as a physical marker that clearly shows the end of a water line and the upland shore. The proponents say the bill would help "clarify" the line between public and private property. There is nothing wrong with steps that increase the accuracy of surveys of the state's rivers, lakes and streams. But this bill does far more — whittling back the public water line to the dry-season boundary. The legislation could turn outdoor enthusiasts into trespassers and undermine efforts to protect natural habitat critical for controlling floods and preserving the state's drinking water supply. Lawmakers should shelve this bill. Generating more consistency in the titling process for private landowners should not be cover for taking away long-established public lands.