Among the nearly 100 people who sent us letters we received about beach driving were people who were directly involved in one of the biggest political and legal battles of Volusia County’s history.
Former assistant county attorney Michael Rodriguez: The federal government could get involved if the county’s not careful
I was the former assistant county attorney who worked closely with Deputy County Attorney Jamie Seaman on all issues relating to the Incidental Take Permit and beach driving. I am concerned that the county is opening up a can of worms with expanding beach driving.
There can be potential federal litigation and the revocation of the ITP which will be the end of all beach driving, especially since the new Biden administration will not take the same hands-off approach to environmental regulation that the outgoing Trump administration undertook.
Unfortunately, when Jamie and I left, much of the institutional relationship between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the county went away with it. The staff there now do not have the experience to handle such a complex matter and think they can copy what St. Johns County did (being that they came in from there and don’t know the historical differences between the two).
Michael A. Rodríguez lives in DeLand. He is now city attorney for the city of Apopka.
Sons of the Beach officer Mike Denis: This fight’s not political
Why are we “beach-nuts” so passionate about this topic? That’s the question that needs to be looked at.
Here’s what feeds my passion.
When I can drive down the beach and pick my spot, I am exercising my personal right. Some days I want to be in the thick of things, other days I want to be alone. It’s my personal choice. If I went to another beach, I’d have to look for a parking spot, carry my stuff, then exercise my personal right in finding a spot that hopefully, suits me on that day. Geez, what happens when I want to change my spot on the beach that day?
Makes one wonder if beach driving is a only-conservative thing. My fellow Sons of the Beach are the full range of political parties and positions. It is not a political thing. I am often shocked when I talk to fellow “beach-nuts” and find out their political positions and parties.
Even though, I am an officer of the SOBs, I do favor some no-drive zones. But make them for five years or so, and then move them around from beach section to beach section.
Here’s an economic look at the issue.
I did live just south of Broadway (oops, International Speedway Boulevard), and walked to the pier often. Look at how many people were on the beach north and south of ISB north, in the “no-drive zone”, it was pretty empty or at a minimum, always less people. The south side was packed, all the way to Silver Beach. And the few times I did make it all the way to Seabreeze Boulevard, the same condition existed, an empty “no-drive” section, and a full drive section.
Is the number of people that are on the beach an indicator of the economic success of a drive vs no-drive beach?
Mike Denis has a long history of beachfront activism.
Local hotelier Gary Brown: It’s time for Volusia’s beaches to evolve
I appreciate your observations on beach driving as a Daytona Beach transplant. I believe that you are correct, this issue is, and always has been, the third rail for the last 20 years.
I have sort of a unique perspective since I have lived in Daytona Beach all my life and spent lot’s of time on the beach as a child and as a teenage surfer. I also attended one race on the beach when I was very young. As an adult, I became a beachside hotel owner for the past 50 years. I loved driving on the beach when I was young, especially carrying the nine-foot surfboards we used back then. It was definitely very convenient to drive and park on the beach, not to mention parking there at night, trying to convince my girlfriends we were there to watch the submarine races that were going to start soon.
Having talked to 50 years of tourists from all over the world, I soon got a different perspective on beach driving. Many guests are neutral on this issue, but many think we in Daytona Beach are crazy to allow cars in a recreation area. Many mothers and fathers with young children have told me they will never come back to Daytona because they fear for the safety of their children. Foreign tourists are baffled by the sight of cars driving on a beach. We get many phone calls from perspective guests, inquiring if our hotel is located in a traffic free section of the beach. Complaints of child safety escalate during events like truck weekend and Jeep beach week.
Tolerance seems OK during our offseason periods and during weekdays, when there are fewer cars, but on a busy weekend in season, it is extremely dangerous for families with young children. They can dart in front of a vehicle in a heartbeat. Whenever I would take my 6 grandchildren to the beach, I would always take them to a traffic-free zone.
As a hotelier, I definitely would prefer a traffic-free beach in front of my property. I believe my occupancy would increase substantially, if I was able to offer this amenity. If I wasn’t in the hotel business and I did not have any small grandchildren, I would certainly enjoy the convenience of parking and being able to carry my cooler and chair in the car.
I think your comments regarding building more beachside parking lots and parks is the inevitable solution. I think that this will eventually become the new norm since the population and the traffic is increasing steadily and obviously makes traffic safety a larger concern.
Like it or not, it is time to evolve.
Gary Brown owns Sun Viking Lodge.
Former Beach Patrol captain Byron White: Jeff Brower’s right, but he won’t win
I saw your request for commentary on beach driving, and wanted to chime in. First, here’s some of my background:
I served as a captain in the Volusia County Beach Patrol from 2015-2019, and worked as a beach safety officer and lifeguard since 2002. I’m a New Smyrna Beach native and was the founding president of the Volusia Waterman’s Association, which is the bargaining unit for beach safety employees. So, I’ve been around these issues for a long time, and I’ve been at least tacitly involved in many of the political slugfests centered around the issue of beach driving.
(I want to make it clear that I am no longer working for the county, and thus no longer a member of the VWA. I am still on the board at the Volusia Surf Lifesaving Association, but these are my own opinions.)
I have come to view beach driving as more of a political issue than anything else. I was a kid when Rita Alexander and Shirley Reynolds waged war with the county in an attempt to remove beach driving. Many of the current limitations on the practice are a result of their litigation with the county.
In the decades since, not much of a nexus between environmental damage and beach driving has been established. I always viewed it as a power grab by rich beachfront landowners to try and privatize the beach behind their homes — sort of a NIMBY proposal. Most of the environmental concerns around the practice of beach driving have, in my opinion, been disingenuous, misguided, or both. The county’s environmental staff do a wonderful job mitigating whatever negligible risks are presented by beach driving. One can often see them working in the hours before sunset, raking down tire tracks in front of turtle nests and surveying anything and everything that could become an issue. The Beach Patrol also do an outstanding job enforcing the onerous regulations that are now in place, many of which I have come to view as ineffective and ridiculous.
I’m a big cheerleader for the environment, and not politically aligned with most of the Sons-of-the-Beach types, but in reality there have been very few documented incidents of wildlife or sensitive habitats being damaged by driving. That’s just a fact — and the county exhaustively documents what is referred to as “take” and reports each case to the federal government. So anyone who wants to see that data can simply file a public records request and see it with their own two eyes.
As for economic issues, again, I don’t see much of a connection between economic blight or prosperity and the act of beach driving. The argument could be made that the closure of Daytona’s “urban core” to vehicles hurt that area, but anyone who drives through that neighborhood can plainly see it suffers from lots of other issues. There are blighted areas of Daytona Beach where driving is still allowed, and also areas which are not blighted. In New Smyrna Beach, driving is allowed in most of the central areas of the beachside and that area is certainly not blighted — actually it’s the most expensive real estate in the county. There are cases in which I feel that increasing closures to vehicles could be very detrimental, and the area most at risk is New Smyrna Beach where the beach is crammed full most weekends, and there isn’t nearly enough parking. And there never will be.
In other areas of Florida where driving has never been allowed or possible, off-beach parking infrastructure was developed early on. We never really did that here in Volusia County since we could always use the beach for parking. In most areas, I think that ship sailed long ago. Recently, the county has been paying millions of dollars to secure a few dozen off-beach parking spaces. I guess they could get an “A” for effort, but I view it as more of a joke than anything else. What are a few dozen spaces going to accomplish when the beach holds literally thousands of vehicles on a busy summer day?
Of course, there is also the cultural component. However, I think most people drive on the beach to park and not to simply cruise around. I know some vocal groups in our county would disagree with that, but it was my job to sit there and watch this stuff happen for years, so I think that should count for something. I’m sure the county or a third party could answer that question definitively if they collected some data, which is now much easier to do in our era of drones and crowd-counting technology.
With all that said, I see an uphill battle for Jeff Brower in reopening areas of the beach that have been long off-limits to vehicles.
I can’t imagine the millionaires south of 27th Avenue in New Smyrna Beach, or in Wilbur-by-the-sea, Ponce Inlet, or Ormond Beach, have much of an appetite for supporting measures that would reopen their vast and empty expanses of public beach to vehicles. Which is really my point. The fact that the non-driving areas are largely desolate and uncrowded is because driving onto the beach is how much of the public enjoys access to our most valuable public resource. There’s simply deficient access and parking in the non-driving areas, and everybody knows it. We blew our chance to develop sufficient off-beach parking decades ago.
The general public should be able to access the beach that is maintained with their tax dollars. I feel strongly that maintaining beach driving is in the public’s best interest, especially when coupled with the county’s already very capable employees, who have managed to strike a delicate balance for decades. I tend to side more with Brower on this issue, which will probably be a rare occurrence. But, I feel that like all newly-minted politicians he will have to learn how to compromise.
Bryon White still lives in New Smyrna Beach and is a member of the board of the Volusia Surf Lifesaving Association. He coordinated the 2017 USLA National Lifesaving Championships.
Former Volusia County spokesman Dave Byron: Volusia County fought harder than most realize to save beach driving
Like most people who weren’t born in Volusia County, I was fascinated, at first, by the ability to drive on our beaches. It was nearly a weekly event to pack the car and hit the beach with the family.
But some 44 years later my view on beach driving has done a 180. I now am convinced beach driving not only is a serious environmental hazard, but also this so-called “tradition” is an overall negative when it comes to tourism/economic development.
During my 28 years with Volusia County government’s administration, I was party to countless discussions on beach driving. So, some background could be helpful to understanding the realities of this issue. Many residents probably are not aware that were it not for an all-out team effort by the county staff in response to the “Shirley/Rita” turtle lawsuit in the early 1990s, it’s very unlikely beach driving would exist today.
The suit, filed under the rigid Federal Endangered Species Act, alleged the county was failing to protect sea turtles and other endangered coastal species by allowing beach driving and other harmful practices. Although not said openly, the county’s legal team believed that if the county had chosen simply to let a judge rule in the case, the county would lose and there was a very high probability that all beach driving would be banned – regardless of public sentiment or economic injury.
Instead, the county responded by putting together a very detailed, complex and expensive habitat conservation plan that resulted in the feds granting the county an incidental take permit that held the county (public) harmless for the inadvertent loss of turtles and other endangered species. Many people believed the habitat conservation plan/permit effort was at best a longshot. However, the county assembled the plan and presented it to the court as a pragmatic solution.
The lawsuit ended, and now the plan has stood the test of time as a model of environmental legislation. The drive/no drive zones that exist today are part of this approved plan. They are based on turtle nesting frequency. It also should be noted that over the years, the county’s administration and legal team have successfully defended many significant lawsuits to protect the public’s right of beach access and confirm public ownership of our coastal sands.
Besides being an environmental threat, beach driving is a public safety threat. There have been many people hit by vehicles on the beach, in spite of the county’s best efforts to regulate driving and parking. The county’s own beach personnel have been involved in vehicle versus pedestrian accidents, resulting in serious bodily injury and a huge monetary judgment against the county in one incident. With thousands of beachgoers packing the sands in competition with vehicles it’s nearly impossible not to have accidents. In my opinion, it’s a matter of time before the county’s legal exposure will be too great a risk to ignore. Fortunately, so far the county has been able to legally dodge the inevitable. I believe beach driving will end as a result of court action, whether it be a negligence lawsuit, an environmental lawsuit, or a failure to respond to the serious threat posed by global warming.
The negative economic side effects of beach driving also should be considered. The Hilton across the street from the Ocean Center remains the area’s largest hotel. Longtime residents will remember it was built in the 1990s, originally as a Marriott. As a consideration for building the hotel, Marriott principals were granted a beachfront vehicle free area. This precedent-setting deal was approved by the County Council. The community’s economic and political heavy hitters, including the Daytona Beach chamber, packed the meeting room to urge county approval of the deal. Other new beachfront accommodations since have been granted similar vehicle-free beach zones.
Are these beachfront traffic free zones actions of self-serving hoteliers? Perhaps. But there’s also an economic aspect. Economic analyses conclude that out-of-town hotel guests are not willing to pay high dollar room rates and then mingle on the beach amid vehicles with stereos blasting, loud engines roaring, and smelly exhaust fumes emitting. In short, commercial and residential beachfront properties in vehicle-free zones have higher property values and attract the coveted family tourists.
During my years at the county I was closely involved with the marketing efforts of the county’s Ocean Center, airport and business development program. I know first-hand the Daytona Beach area’s ingrained reputation as a wide open party town has hindered progress and economic growth in a number of ways.
Beach driving has a lot to do with this negative image. As an example, I vividly remember the airport’s efforts to recruit European charter airlines in the 1990s – before the Sanford airport took hold. In spite of very attractive financial inducements by our airport, the effort failed largely due to the Orlando area’s magnetism. But a lack of high-quality accommodations and beach driving also were contributors to this unsuccessful effort. Airport recruiters frequently were told that, in general, Europeans are environmentally conscious and they view cars on the beach as unappealing.
Ask yourself this question. If beach driving is what makes this area so attractive and so famous, then why does the area’s tourism advertising agency not promote it? Take a look at the brochures, online messaging, and promotional images. How many vehicles do you see on the beach?
Certainly, beach driving has its proponents and its opponents. This issue has been, and continues to be, a political conundrum for county leaders. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. But let’s be honest. Politics aside, beach driving faces multiple threats and at some point there will be no choice but to end this practice. The prudent thing for the County Council to do now is direct staff to come up with a comprehensive, implementable plan for a carless beach and the incremental steps to get there. The county charter guarantees public beach access. This means sufficient off-beach parking must be provided. This is a tall order, especially in the New Smyrna Beach area. The county staff already has done much planning. This effort should be moved to the front burner, even if the status quo remains, for now.
Dave Byron lives in DeLand.
Early beach-access activist Deby Morin: Cars got me to the water’s edge
I was the first member of my family (I have five siblings) to be born in Florida, at Halifax Hospital) . We lived in Port Orange (no one admitted you were from there back then). The beach was a free place to take six kids and let them have fun. Outings ended eating watermelon at the water’s edge to wash off the stickiness and seeds.
I had polio at a young age, so the beach was a true challenge for me. I walked on braces and crutches at that time. My siblings would carry me to the water or (if low tide) Mom drove as close to the water as she dared. I’d take off my braces and crawl into the water.
Once I was in the water, it was amazing! Many years later wheelchairs, both manual and later power, moved me around (they don’t do well in the sand!)
When I moved out on my own as a young adult, I rented an apartment beachside. I was living the good life. Good job, bought a car (and hand controls and then learned how to drive) and made good friends. A group of us spent most of our weekends on the sands with lots of people stopping by to sit and visit. There were lively discussions and plans made for weekend nights of dancing.
I was one of the original members of the Sons of the Beaches. The county wanted to put a toll on the beach and stop night driving.
During a night time driving ban protest, I was stopped by a policeman and warned to leave. Sitting in my backseat was a News-Journal reporter. I didn’t get a ticket, but took my sweet time leaving. (Shaking like a leaf the whole time!)
I don’t get to the beach much now. I live on the mainland after living on the beachside for 50 plus years. Access for power wheelchairs is pretty limited, not to mention the harm to the chair. Some access ramps have a 2 to 3 foot drop after high tides. Now, sometimes, we pick up a burger or donut, park in Ormond-by-the-Sea and watch birds, boats and people.
I’ve watched the driving part of the beach getting smaller, not to tides, but to motels and condos. The winter residents have no idea what it took to keep some parts of the beach public. Even so, now, there are some places that are becoming private (Margaritaville is NOT anywhere near the beach, people!)
So, Pat, that is my salt life story. I have fished, built sandcastles, played games, partied, and relaxed on the beach, from Ormond-by-the-Sea to Ponce Inlet. I would leave the area for jobs, and all I wanted was to get back home!
Thanks for the chance to reminisce,
Deby L. Morin lives in Ormond Beach. She is a founding member of Sons of the Beach.
Longtime environmental activist Brynn Newton: Challenging beach driving is a dangerous game.
I’m sure your invitation to comment on beach driving has stirred a lot of memories for lots of folks. Here are a few random thoughts and, I hope, resources:
In 1999 and 2000, the Walter Boardman Advisory Board at UCF funded a survey of beach goers, to gauge the economic impact of beach driving. Economics Professor Mark Soskin conducted and supervised the survey. We learned, not surprisingly, that most people fill their tanks and coolers in other counties, drive to Volusia County, spend a day cruising and basking, and then go home. The Orlando Sentinel and The News-Journal both reported the results and ran editorials.
One of the best sources of data for the economic impact may be the property appraiser. At the time of the Boardman survey, we also looked at the relative assessed value of properties along car-free compared to the driving stretches of oceanfront. Allowing for stacks of homestead of exemptions on some of those units, the tax revenue differential is still impressive.
The News-Journal archives should be bulging with coverage of the litigation known collectively as “the turtle lawsuit.” Beach driving advocates will need a federal court order to modify the incidental take permit that has freed many miles of Volusia County beaches from cars. It wasn’t Shirley Reynolds’ and Rita Alexander’s fault that nobody acquired land near the beach for off beach parking when it was affordable. The statistics show that the ITP has greatly benefited nesting turtles. (Not just the turtles needed it. Imagine flying across the Atlantic Ocean and finally reaching land after those thousands of miles, and alighting on the welcoming sands of the World’s Most Famous Parking Lot.)
The 1986 Volusia County Charter Review Commission placed a referendum on the ballot on whether to put control of the beaches in the county’s hands. When he was being considered for a Circuit Judgeship in 1999, I told the members of the Judicial Nominating Commission that Hubert Grimes possessed one of the most important qualities you’d want in a judge — patience — and he had demonstrated it many times over when he chaired the Charter Review Commission’s Beach Issues Committee. I’d hate to think of how many times he had to hear audience members one after another tell the committee how they remembered how their family used to get in the family car and drive on the beach and what wonderful memories those were. All back when there were about a third as many people here.
In the 1970s, Tom Brown took the first step I was aware of to remove cars from the beach, citing the soft sand north of Granada Avenue and the cost of constantly towing cars out of the holes they’d dug for themselves. (He was on the Volusia County Council in the late 70s, and was a great state senator in the 80s. He once pulled a very clever procedural coup to prevent St. Johns County’s Hamilton Upchurch from eviscerating DEP’s standards and criteria for reviewing permit applications. Sen. Brown said, “You don’t have to have bad motives to be sneaky.”)
Thanks for tackling this. Good luck.
Brynn Newton is a Flagler County attorney who serves on the board of the Environmental Council of Volusia and Flagler Counties and the executive committee of the Sierra Club of Florida’s Volusia-Flagler Group.
Former Daytona Beach Mayor Richard Kane: Access is a sacred right and that means driving
In this country, certain parts are world class natural treasures and become famous attractions such as Niagara Falls, Grand Canyon, the Tetons, Bonneville Salt Flats and Daytona Beach. They are not the property of the present generation nor of those who happen to live nearby. We are temporary stewards or curators of the natural phenomenons that last millions of years. I have reverence for the beach that brought me here 60 years ago.
To the extent we control our beach, we must remember it was bestowed on humanity, not the current beneficiaries or those who may influence the current use in the historical picture.
First we look to history and find the beach is millions of years of years old but only recently discovered. Recorded history shows the beach was always free and open to the indians and settlers. In the last hundred years when cars came into being, they freely roamed and raced on the beach.
Then we look at the rules of civilization. The U.S. Constitution says all men are created equal with inalienable rights. The Florida Constitution says beaches are held by the State in trust for all the people and the Florida Supreme Court has often enforced the public’s inalienable rights in the beach. In the 1980s, when the cities controlled the beach, many lawsuits enforced the public trust doctrine.
The County Charter says “Because prohibiting motor vehicle access to the beach would deny beach access to many, the Council shall authorize…. vehicle access …”
Now we are presented with a public debate which seems founded in economics. Should citizens who pay $1 million or $2 million for their luxury condo on the beach have to put up with visitors driving on the beach ? Since hoteliers can charge more money for no-driving zones and will pay more taxes, shouldn’t they be granted exclusivity on the public beach?
Practically speaking, until lifeguards get levitation devices, there will always be beach driving for services and first responders so the real issue is: Should beach users be restricted from driving and parking on the remaining 13 miles of the original 27 miles?
So we are not dealing with an issue of what “he” wants or what “she” wants. We are dealing with an inalienable right dating back to Roman Law and a birthright of current mortals. Beach access should always be sacred and protected and when Elon Musk provides us with levitation or virtual transportation, we will deal with it then. Richard Kane, Daytona Beach
Kane was mayor of Daytona Beach mayor from 1969-74. He is a founding member and serves on the board of Sons of the Beach.
Beach-access advocate Rich Waters: County gave away too much
Traditional and historic beach access (cars on the beach) has been complicated by city and county councils with the support of individuals and groups that promoted and sponsored the demise of the Worlds Most Famous Beach. Many falsehoods have been fabricated about the beach and hidden from the public. The following are just a few points about those falsehoods and what they have cost the residents and taxpayers of Volusia County. I apologize for the length but there is much that most are not aware of!
The courts did not order vehicles off the beach to protect turtles during the day. The courts certainly did not order cars off the beach during non-turtle season day or night. The Volusia County Council did by filing for a federal Incidental Take Permit. In my opinion, they were needlessly restricting beach driving. For the past 23 years and according to county records, no adult turtles have been hit let alone killed by cars. No nests have been destroyed by private cars. The courts did rule that lights (from homes, condominiums, businesses or cars) could be detrimental to turtle nesting. There are exceptions like the Boardwalk area. County records indicate more hatchlings “encounter” the conservation poles that supposedly protect them from cars and humans.
The Endangered Species Act states after a species is listed as threatened or endangered, the ESA requires that each federal agency “insure that any action authorized, funded, or carried out by an agency … is not likely to jeopardize the continued existence of any endangered or threatened species or result in the destruction or adverse modification of [critical] habitat.” Id. I believe vehicular access has never done that.
After two decades and many hotel bankruptcies, some still believe taking cars off the beach will create economic development. While tens of thousands of homes and new shopping malls (The Pavilion, One Daytona, Tanger) are being built, the beachside continues to stay stagnant. Volusia County’s tourism growth has been near the bottom of all Florida counties for over a decade.
The strategy of turning Daytona Beach into South Florida failed. Two decades is enough.
The cost of off beach parking is astronomical to taxpayers. In their last meeting the Council approved spending nearly $1 million on the Dahlia Avenue Park, which has 61 spots. They will spend $1.2 million to construct another park in Daytona Beach Shores named after local developer Edwin Peck Sr. Jeff Brower was the only council member to object to these expenditures!
Replacing the remaining on-beach parking would cost tens of million dollars.
Vehicular beach access was and is the driver of tourism for the World’s Most Famous Beach. It was and is easy access for individuals, groups or for families and especially single parent families to have a fun day at the beach. The beach should be reopened during the day and non-nesting season at night. Worst-case, the beach should be reopened outside of turtle season. Special events should be identified and declared such as Labor Day, 4th of July, Memorial Day, etc. The core area could develop events like their own Turkey Rod at the Ocean Center with concerts at the Bandshell. Imagine the headlines in newspapers, tourist publications and word of mouth when that happened.
Rich Waters, another longtime member of Sons of the Beach, lives in Daytona Beach.
This article originally appeared on The Daytona Beach News-Journal: Startling stories from folks on the front lines of Volusia’s beach-driving debate