Gov. Rick Scott issued an executive order Thursday to block state agencies from taking action on a bill he signed into law earlier this year that critics of the measure warned from the outset could limit the public's access to beaches.
Scott's order imposes a moratorium on any new state regulation that could inhibit public beach access and urges local government officials to take similar steps.
"Unfortunately, the legislation has now created considerable confusion and some have even interpreted it as restricting beach access," Scott, a Republican who is trying to unseat incumbent U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson in November, said in a press release announcing the order. "I'm committed to keeping our beaches open to the public and this executive order makes this commitment clear."
The law, which Scott signed on March 23 and went into effect July 1, requires a local government to get a judge's approval to enforce the "customary use" law so that the public can continue to use the dry sand areas of privately owned beachfront. In Florida, beach property can be privately owned, with ownership extending across dry sand to the edge of the high-water shoreline.
The measure drew opposition from groups ranging from the Florida Association of Counties to the Florida Wildlife Federation and the Surfriders Foundation.
The bill (HB 631) was sponsored by Sen. Kathleen Passidomo, R-Naples, and Rep. Katie Edwards-Walpole, D-Sunrise, and was approved 29-7 by the Senate and 95-17 by the House. Scott's order maintains that the law "does not privatize or close access to any public beach in Florida, but instead creates a uniform legal process for local governments seeking to expand the public's access to beaches."
But it also noted that "it is critical that there be no room for confusion regarding access to public beaches in Florida." The governor's executive order also directs the Department of Environmental Protection to serve both as an advocate for the public and as a liaison to local governments regarding the public's right to access the beach.
Democrats quickly jumped on Scott's order, accusing the governor of an election-year ploy.
"While it is welcome news that Floridians could now be able to access their beaches without fear of prosecution, this is yet another example of how Rick Scott will say and do anything to get elected. Scott literally just signed the law that allowed residents to restrict beach access," Florida Democratic Party spokesman Nate Evans said in a press release. "These election year actions remind Floridians that Rick Scott has spent the past seven years as governor looking out for himself at the expense of Florida."
The governor's order also directs state environmental officials to establish an online system in which Floridians can provide input on beach access. The results will be presented to the Legislature and governor prior to the 2019 session.
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