The governor issued an executive order Thursday blocking state agencies from taking action to limit public beach access, contradicting a law Scott signed back in March that made it easier for property owners to kick people off their private beachfronts.
"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 commitment clear."
The law, which went into effect on July 1, makes it harder for local government to establish "customary use" access on private properties where owners might put up "no trespassing" signs. In Florida, the "wet sand" area below the mean high water line, toward the sea, is public, but the "dry sand" area above that belongs to property owners.
In the past, cities and counties could pass ordinances allowing people to use private beachfronts traditionally seen as public. The new rule forced municipal governments to sue private owners and get a judge's approval on whether "customary use" on the beach had been "ancient, reasonable, without interruption and free from dispute."
"Florida is home to the world’s best beaches, and every Floridian and visitor has the right to fully enjoy our state’s natural resources," Scott said. "Florida beaches belong to all of us, and people from across the world visit Florida because of them – and we are going to keep it that way."
The Tampa Bay Times reports Scott's reversal comes after a state attorney in North Florida threatened to prosecute Walton County beachgoers charged with criminal trespassing.
Scott's executive order urges Florida counties and state attorneys to protect public beach access and directs the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to support those efforts by collecting comments on the matter from Floridians. The order also imposes a moratorium on state agencies adopting "any rule or restriction to inhibit the public’s access to Florida’s beaches, unless there is a clear risk to public safety."
"Government’s job is to help solve problems, and in Florida, when there is an issue or confusion surrounding legislation, we take action to address it," Scott said. "We have hundreds of miles of pristine coastline and we are known for having the best beaches across the world. We absolutely cannot do anything that changes that."
The Republican governor has come under heavy criticism from Florida Democrats, who accuse him of reversing his position in order to get elected. Scott is trying to unseat U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, a Democratic incumbent, in the November election.
Rick Scott could have prioritized Floridians by vetoing the legislation that restricted access to our beaches, but he didn't. The people of Florida deserve better than election year shenanigans and hypocrisy.— Bill Nelson (@NelsonForSenate) July 13, 2018
"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," Florida Democratic Party spokesman Nate Evans said in a statement. "Scott literally just signed the law that allowed residents to restrict beach access. 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."
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