By Lauren Hill
The cessation of driving on the beach at Matanzas Inlet has caused quite a stir amongst beach goers in St. Johns County. Some celebrated the closure to cars as a promise for the preservation of the Inlet’s aesthetic and ecological health. Others claim the closure limits access to the Inlet and are mourning the loss of their individual right to enjoy the beach as they see fit.
The driving ban at Matanzas went into effect Jan. 1, as the National Park Service sought to make the Fort Matanzas National Monument retro-compliant with Nixon-era legislation that rendered the use of vehicles in the National Park System illegal, except in designated areas.
The ban affects approximately one mile of beach on the southern-most tip of Anastasia Island, leaving about 14 miles in St. Johns County that still allow vehicular traffic, according to Troy Blevins, the director of parks and recreation for St. Johns County. The on-going debate has left many questioning the fate of driving on the remaining stretches and weighing the costs and benefits of driving on our beaches. In true modern American fashion, the debate has descended into a polarized battle between “environmentalists” and “traditionalists.” However, these dichotomies apply wholly to almost no one. Essentially, both parties want to be able to enjoy the beach in particular ways.
The traditionalists tend to defend beach driving in terms of its historic acceptability and incorporation into some local beach cultures. Some question the motives of anti-beach drivers, claiming they seek only to take access away from the general public and privatize public spaces. Others, like St. Augustine Beach resident Bryan Pidcock, are concerned about equal access.
“Those current and future groups of users who will directly be impacted the most are the disabled, handicapped, unfit, lazy, and elderly people. We are a nation that is aging and that is also increasingly becoming more obese and unfit. The automobile makes access realistic for these user groups,” Pidcock asserted. Some also claim that local businesses may be affected by a potential decrease in tourism.
Many who oppose beach driving seek to preserve the ecological integrity of the beach. Not necessarily limiting human access, only prohibiting the access of things or actions that may disturb or cause imbalance to ecological systems. Many also protest beach driving on the grounds of safety concerns, health risks and noise pollution. Some cite the findings of The Surfrider Foundation, which holds that “beach driving can cause serious ecological impacts by potentially destroying nesting areas for sea turtles and birds such as the piping plover and damaging or destroying vegetation and dunes. Shore erosion can be accelerated by careless beach driving and vehicles on the beach can be a safety hazard to beach goers.”
While the Surfrider Foundation recognizes the potentially detrimental impacts of beach driving, several community chapters of the organization continue to fight for beach driving rights in desolate areas to prevent privatization. The only inaccessible beach for most in St. Augustine is that of Anastasia State Park, which has been closed to driving for nearly a decade.
Many claimed Matanzas to be “closed” or “inaccessible” after the driving ban went into effect, though the three adjacent parking lots still remain open for use. In fact, the county has made a concentrated effort to make beaches accessible in recent years, tripling the number of public boardwalks to the beach in some areas and refurbishing many others.
Local resident Cat Eastman said of the ban, “I see that the overall desires of the community here have shifted to a more global and overall awareness of the sensitivity and importance to conserve our natural resources.”
Our duty as a community is to determine how to best balance recreational use and preservation efforts of our common resources, so that we get to enjoy our beaches without undermining the elements that draw us to those places.