Set in Their Ways

On July 3, both CBS This Morning and CBS Evening News aired segments about the beach-driving controversy on Amelia Island, where two women sunbathers and a turtle nest have been struck by hit-and-run drivers in recent months. The incidents—and media exposure that followed—sparked intense public debate between people who believe that bringing their vehicle to the beach is a time-honored tradition that should be respected and those who maintain that beach driving jeopardizes public safety and should be banned for good.

“It’s only a matter of time before somebody gets killed,” Fernandina Beach City Commissioner Len Kreger told Folio Weekly. “It’s only a matter of time before we have a fatality. What are we waiting for?”

Kreger is calling for a complete vehicle ban at Seaside Park, near the Sadler Road access, the only city location where driving and parking is allowed. Under local ordinance, a study is required before officials can make any “reductions” to parking on the beach. Discussion is on the agenda for the Aug. 2 Fernandina Beach City Commission meeting.

Kreger said his inbox is filled with increasing resident support for a vehicle beach ban. But the proposal will be difficult to sell to his board colleagues. Commissioner Chip Ross has said he would never drive on the beach, but he knows that many locals and transplants alike are passionate about preserving tradition. Commissioner Mike Lednovich has said that around-the-clock security cameras would prevent problems, while Commissioner Phil Chapman has shown some flexibility, suggesting that people who want a prime parking space at the beach arrive early or prepare to hike with the cooler.

Jacksonville attorney John Phillips, who represents the two hit-and-run victims, has called on officials to impose an island-wide moratorium on beach driving until public safety can be ensured. Phillips initiated a media blitz to raise awareness and find the driver of a white jeep that reportedly struck his client (one of the offending drivers remains at large). Local news outlets, including Folio Weekly, have run stories. The CBS segment featured a shot of Fernandina Beach Mayor Johnny Miller standing on the beach, saying there’s “no easy answer.” In-studio, host Gayle King retorted that the decision ought to be clear: Public safety trumps tradition.

Nassau County Sheriff Bill Leeper, who grew up in Fernandina Beach, stated via email on July 2 that no one has come forward with additional information on the vehicle strike. Investigators will follow any lead that comes to the office. The sheriff has previously announced additional patrols for beachfront parks during the busy summer season.

Fernandina Beach Police Chief James Hurley says beachgoers should set their towels and chairs outside of the parking area when possible and suggests that sunbathers mark their location with a flag, like scuba divers do when they go underwater. He says the city has a “remarkable safety record” at the beach and that banning vehicles would send hundreds of cars and trucks to nearby roadways to park, forcing beachgoers to cross Fletcher Avenue, a busy roadway that runs parallel to the beach. That, he said via phone and email last week, would likely increase pedestrian strikes and traffic accidents, such as rear-end collisions, “while the pedestrians continue on to the beach unaffected.”

Since the incidents, the city has increased daily patrols and installed a booth at the beach access for staff to distribute pamphlets outlining the rules, such as driving no more than 5 mph, keeping away from turtle nests and dunes, and no joy riding. Chief Hurley concluded, “There are no easy answers as much as people would like there be.”