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Beach Driving Fight Rolls On In Volusia County

Photo: Volusia County
Photo: Volusia County

There aren’t many beaches that allow you to drive right onto the sand. Daytona Beach is one of the few, and it’s become something of a unique tradition there, even a point of pride. So when the Volusia County Council voted last month to restrict beach driving in front of a few proposed five-star hotels, there was an outcry from some residents.

Council members say curtailing the beach driving will stimulate development. But locals say the beach driving itself is a tourism draw. Now, the fight is going to court in the first of what may be many battles over beach driving.

Believe it or not, this “beach driving” thing is a lot more complicated than you might think and passions run high about it. Take the most recent clash between the Volusia County Council and a pro-beach-driving citizen group called Let Volusia Vote.

Volusia County is challenging the group in court over its online petition calling for voters to have the final say on any beach driving restrictions.

Volusia County spokesperson Dave Byron said Let Volusia Vote is “driving” at this the wrong way. "The county is not taking a position as to beach driving pro or con. We’re taking a position and seeking a court ruling on whether the petition itself is legal,” he said.

Let Volusia Vote is trying to gather enough citizens’ signatures to force the question on the 2016 ballot. In other words, voters would be asked if they want to make a law that says Volusia County cannot decide to restrict beach driving without coming back for the voters’ okay first.

Interpreting State Law

It appears that this fight comes down to how you interpret state law. Byron says Florida gave the right to regulate beach driving to the Volusia County Council and a citizens’ initiative can’t change that.

"That state law basically says the only way – yes, the only way – that you could take cars off the beach or to regulate cars on the beach is by the jurisdiction that has responsibility for those beaches, which in this case would be county government and the elected Volusia County Council," he said.

Let Volusia Vote Chairman Greg Gimbert sees the same Florida law, he just reads it differently. "It is true that state law delegates the decision power to remove beach driving to what they term as the local governing authority. That is not a unique situation. Lots of powers are delegated exclusively to the local governing authority."

The “local governing authority” here is the Volusia County Council. And in Florida, there are plenty of decisions made by county governments – like zoning, land use plans, property tax rates...and beach driving. Gimbert says nothing in the state law exempts these county-level decisions from being challenged by citizens who want to make a change. He contends the Volusia County Council is looking at things upside-down.

"Those statutes, in effect, prohibit the governor, the legislature, the senate, or state-level bureaucrats from coming and imposing their will on local decisions. It is an umbrella of protection from interference from the top down. It is not an all-encompassing bubble preventing the citizens from participating from the bottom up," said Gimbert.

A Day In Court

Volusia County’s Dave Byron says he’s not sure when the challenge will go to court, but he hopes for the sake of both sides that it happens soon. "You know, the local judiciary reads the newspapers as well, and I’m sure that they’re going to see this as a matter of public importance," he said.

As for Greg Gimbert of Let Volusia Vote, he says he is ready to go to court and defend the petition so he can continue to fight for beach driving. "I would like to see that very unique beach access that Volusia County residents enjoy – access to their entire beach, where they want, when they want, and how they want – not to be able to be bought and sold with campaign contributions. Whether we ultimately give away beach driving or not needs to be a decision of the people. So if it’s going to be done TO us, it must be done BY us."

Gimbert says in the meantime, he’ll continue to collect signatures. Both sides say he will probably collect enough to put his question on the 2016 ballot – if he gets past the court.

Nicole came to Central Florida to attend Rollins College and started working for Orlando’s ABC News Radio affiliate shortly after graduation. She joined WMFE in 2010. As a field reporter, news anchor and radio show host in the City Beautiful, she has covered everything from local arts to national elections, from extraordinary hurricanes to historic space flights, from the people and procedures of Florida’s justice system to the changing face of the state’s economy.
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