Underscoring the near-universal contempt for the consequences of this law from the vast majority of Northwest Floridians, is the fact that every Republican member of the Panhandle state House delegation voted to pass the law — an interesting feat since the law was sponsored by a South Florida Democrat.
Over the last few weeks, the PNJ has attempted to contact Northwest Florida House members to understand why they would have endorsed a move from a South Florida Democrat that is now hurting Panhandle natives and tourism. By the time of this writing, only Rep. Frank White had responded.
White, who is currently running for state attorney general, claimed he did not know the bill would single out Walton County. “The intent was to protect beach access while also protecting private property,” he said. “Initially, it was meant to streamline a process statewide.”
The silence from White’s Republican colleagues is deafening. Was it an accident that they allowed a South Florida Democrat’s lawmaking to wreak havoc on Northwest Florida beaches? Or did they know all along?
At least one of their former House colleagues did. Recent reporting from Tom McLaughlin of the Northwest Florida Daily News revealed how the South Florida Democrat behind HB 631 had previous ties to Congressman Matt Gaetz.
McLaughlin wrote that “records show that sometime between November of 2017 and Jan. 11, 2018, HB 631 was amended to exclude Volusia and St. Johns counties — the only two Florida counties other than Walton to have established customary use ordinances — from the bill’s “provisions.”
Thus, Walton County was specifically targeted among all 67 Florida counties to be affected by the new law. But why?
Much of Walton County’s most exclusive beachfront property is owned by the ultra-wealthy and politically connected. Famous residents include musicians like Faith Hill and Kenny Chesney and Republican superstars like former presidential candidate Mike Huckabee and strategist Karl Rove. Gaetz has claimed to be close personal friends with the Huckabees.
Needless to say, the private beaches and no trespassing signs benefit a very elite few.
Through emails and documents, McLaughlin details how a Northwest Florida law firm representing those beachfront property owners directly influenced a state lawmaker behind the bill, Rep. Katie Edwards-Walpole, a South Florida Democrat.
And the law firm wasn’t the only influence. McLaughlin also reported that during the time the law was being crafted, Edwards-Walpole had phone calls with Congressman Gaetz, whose district includes Walton County.
Gaetz had worked closely with Edwards-Walpole in past campaigns to legalize medical marijuana. According to McLaughlin, Gaetz described her as “among the top five most effective legislators in either party I’ve ever worked with.”
When asked about his consultation with Edwards-Walpole, Gaetz downplayed his role in HB 631. “She was asking questions about Walton County. Mostly we were discussing the uniqueness of Walton County, why it was so different. I told her this is the only circumstance I know of where property lines are plotted all the way to the water.”
Ultra-wealthy and politically connected beachfront property owners. High priced lawyers. A Washington congressman, a South Florida Democrat and compliant Panhandle Republicans. It’s all just a glimpse into the dirty politics that has resulted in privatized beaches.
And it raises important questions about who truly wanted to restrict Northwest Floridians’ access to the precious shoreline along the Gulf of Mexico.
Did a South Florida Democratic state lawmaker really want to meddle in beach access of Walton County? Or did she do it at the behest of her former colleague Matt Gaetz and other well-connected Panhandle property owners?
Citizens deserve to know how HB 631 really happened. At the very least, if this isn’t a case of big-government law-making that hurts local citizens, then we don’t know what is.
Questions need to be answered. Panhandle state representatives Clay Ingram, Frank White, Jayer Williamson, Mel Ponder and Brad Drake need to explain how a South Florida Democrat pushed a law that specifically targeted a Panhandle county with disastrous effects on the people of Northwest Florida.
And his suspicious, shrouded connections to the case in Walton County, once again, give residents further confirmation that Gaetz is not to be trusted on issues involving access to our precious public beaches.Source- PNJ.com
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