Should driving and camping on the beach continue?
Another in a series of workshops to collect community input on ordinances affecting county beaches took place last Wednesday evening in Commission Chambers in Yulee. A crowd of about 75 citizens filled the chambers to capacity, leaving standing room only.
The Beach Community Working Group members listened for more than hour as approximately 30 people expressed their opinions as to whether changes in beach ordinances are in order. As in previous meetings, the most controversial issues were whether driving and camping on county beaches should continue. These activities are currently allowed in restricted areas.
Some want driving and camping more heavily regulated or eliminated altogether for safety, environmental or enforcement reasons. Others express a desire to maintain the status quo especially when it comes to driving and parking on the beach.
A contingent of Jeep enthusiasts, longtime residents who view driving on the beach as a tradition worth preserving, and newcomers who relocated here to escape over-regulation at other beaches, made impassioned pleas to preserve driving and parking on the beach, saying the “freedom” to drive and park is one of the things that make the beach here special.
Among speakers advocating for the status quo was Jake Shuford of Yulee, who said, “My wife and I decided on this environment because of the freedom of a small environment with very little governmental oversight and the freedom to do what we want to in our retired years. Sure, people get hurt where there is driving. If a kid gets run over out on the street, do we close that street never to be driven on again or do we restrict access to that street? No. I listen to the neighbors I have who’ve been here their entire lives and they loved the attitude they used to have until money came in and closed part of the beach. … I don’t drive the beach back and forth. … We drive to find a parking spot to enjoy a family day on the beach. I urge you as you make your decision to consider that you are trying to kill what is part of the lure of our wonderful area.”
A stroke survivor on a walker pointed out that driving right up to the shore permits him access to the beach he could not otherwise enjoy. Committee Chairman Gil Langley, who is also managing director of the Amelia Island Tourist Development Council, assured him beach access by disabled persons would continue to be taken into consideration regardless of any changes in ordinances.
Among those wanting to prohibit driving on the beach for environmental reasons, a woman presented committee members with pictures of a marked turtle nest recently destroyed by a vehicle. She reported the damage occurred at night when no vehicles were supposed to be on the beach and appeared to be deliberate.
Several speakers warned of safety issues. One woman reported witnessing an incident on Mother’s Day when a child was nearly struck by a vehicle backing up on the beach, and produced an article about a child killed by a driver on another Florida beach.
Various opinions were shared about a recent incident where a Georgia woman said she suffered a leg injury at Peters Point when a white Jeep ran over her as she laid on the beach. The vehicle did not stop. Skeptics questioned the report and its coincidence with the current controversy over vehicles being allowed on the beach. The Nassau County Sheriff’s Office and an attorney representing the woman have asked for the public’s help in getting more information.
Some alluded to weekends when vehicles are parked three deep on the sand, limiting beach access for everybody.
Among those advocating for change was Nancy Kingsley of Amelia Island. She said, “I understand back in 1973 there was an organization formed called Citizens for Public Beaches and Shores, and I reflected on what life was like back in 1973. We could smoke in public places, even on airplanes. We didn’t have to wear seat belts. We didn’t have to wear bike helmets. Kids didn’t have to be in car seats. We didn’t recycle. There were no emissions controls on our vehicles, no fines for littering, and there were far fewer four-wheel drive vehicles. So in addition to an increase in the population of Nassau County, we have many more vehicles that can drive on the beach ….”
An officer representing the Nassau County Sheriff’s Office on the committee responded to comments about the need for better enforcement of existing ordinances. “I think I would be doing my men a disservice if I didn’t tell you they are doing their jobs. … Last year alone we wrote 279 beach citations.” He pointed out that officers are allowed to use their discretion whether to issue a citation or a warning and that figure does not reflect the number of warnings also issued.
One more public workshop by the committee is scheduled for Thursday, May 30, at 5:30 p.m. in Commission Chambers at the James S. Page Governmental Complex in Yulee. That meeting will conclude the data-gathering phase, and the committee will begin to analyze information collected.
The committee has collected two large notebooks of emails and letters from citizens expressing not only preferences but ideas for possible solutions and compromises. Those not able to attend the final meeting and who have not yet given their input are urged to send emails to the county manager at firstname.lastname@example.org. All emails are forwarded to and read by the committee.
Langley said more opportunities for community input would be provided once the committee has drafted a plan for discussion.