Amid a growing public furor in an election year, Gov. Rick Scott is using his executive powers to override a beach access law he signed in March.
Scott issued an executive order Thursday that blocks state agencies under his control from taking actions that could limit public access to Florida's beaches, a defining aspect of the state's image as a tourist-friendly destination.
"Unfortunately, the legislation has now created considerable confusion and some have even interpreted it as restricting beach access," Scott said in a statement. "I'm committed to keeping our beaches open to the public and this executive order makes this clear."
Read the full text of Scott's executive order here.
The new law requires cities and counties to get court approval to enforce the doctrine of historical public access to dry sand on privately-owned beach, a principle known as customary use. To do that, a local government would be required to sue private landowners.
Critics said Scott's order contradicts his decision to sign HB 631 in the 2018 session of the Legislature. The bill, which had wide bipartisan support, was an attempt to ease tensions between private property rights and public access to the sand.
"He's backpedaling," said Rep. Evan Jenne, D-Dania Beach, who represents a coastal district in Broward County and voted against the bill. "He realizes that he signed a bill that he probably shouldn't have. The backlash on this one has been severe."
Jenne questioned whether Scott's staff did sufficient homework that would have anticipated a public outcry over the new law.
On the white sandy beaches of the Florida Panhandle, which beckon tourists from throughout the Southeast, uniformed security guards are on patrol this summer and some landowners have posted no trespassing signs.
The controversy has spread to other coastal communities such as Naples and Amelia Island.
The new law took effect July 1, a traditional date that marks the start of a new fiscal year but which also marks the unofficial start of the summer tourist season, just before the Fourth of July.
Tensions escalated in recent days when an elected prosecutor in that part of the state reversed course and announced that he would prosecute cases of criminal trespassing brought against Walton County beach-goers.
"Any person trespassing on private property above the high water line may be subject to arrest," State Attorney Bill Eddins, according to the Northwest Florida Daily News. He added that the new law's provisions "are mandatory and must be followed."
Underscoring the growing confusion, Eddins' stance places him at odds with Walton County Sheriff Mike Adkinson.
Scott's executive order also appeared to side with the sheriff and challenge the prosecutor's decision.
"I hereby urge all state attorneys throughout the state of Florida to take appropriate actions to ensure that the ability of the public to access Florida's public beaches in accordance with longstanding Florida law is preserved and is not infringed," Scott's executive order said.
Adkinson said a minority of "outliers" is driving the debate over beach access.
"Most private property owners could care less if somebody walked down the beach and could care less if somebody sat on the beach," Adkinson said. "But there are those that say, 'I don't want you to set one foot on my property.'"
The House sponsor of the bill, Rep. Katie Edwards-Walpole, D-Plantation, said her goal was to find a solution to a problem that is worsening due to increased construction of single-family homes on beachfronts.
"Ten years ago, this wasn't an issue," Edwards-Walpole said. "I see this becoming an increasing problem for coastal counties."
Progress Florida, a liberal St. Petersburg-based group that rates legislators annually for their votes, called the beach access bill "bad for Florida" and took points from lawmakers who voted for it.
"This bill has the potential to restrict public access in various locations to one of Florida's greatest assets: its beaches," the group said.
Scott's office said phone calls from citizens were opposed to the legislation by a margin of 8-to-1, and that the office received a petition opposing the bill signed by 783 people.
Sen. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, announced Friday that he will file a bill in the 2019 session to repeal the law Scott signed.
"Restricting beach access impedes upon the freedoms we enjoy as citizens and will hamper Florida's attractiveness as a vacation destination," Rouson said in a statement.
Scott, a Republican, is challenging three-term U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, a Democrat, in a race that could tip the partisan balance of power in the Senate for years to come.
Virtually every poll has shown the race to be very close with fewer than 10 percent of voters undecided, a potential sign that public opinion could be influenced by a single controversial issue.
"This is yet another example of how Rick Scott will say or do anything to get elected," said Nate Evans, a spokesman for the Florida Democratic Party.
In his executive order, Scott directed the Department of Environmental Protection to create a hotline or "online reporting tool" for the public to report violations of beach access, and refer any complaints to authorities. The agency must issue a report on public comments to the Legislature by Dec. 31, 2018.
Times staff writer Craig Pittman contributed to this report.