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First Coast

Proposed Nassau Beach Ordinance Could Hurt Decades-Long American Beach Tradition

Starling using a Tibetan singing bowl while he's sitting on a picnic table with a hat and the Night Sanders Campers logo on it, in the background is a boardwalk that leads to the shore of American Beach
Sky Lebron
/
WJCT News
Ron Starling, the founder of the Night Sanders Campers, says he's been visiting American Beach since he was a child.

Nassau County Commissioners are expected to vote on an ordinance today (Monday) that would restrict group camping on some public beaches. 

The changes threaten a long tradition of gatherings on historically Black American Beach.

Ron Starling comes to historic American Beach at least once a week. 

He sits down at a nearby picnic table, lights some incense, and strikes a small Tibetan singing bowl.

“I was under the age of 10 when I first came to American Beach, and ever since then, I've been coming back as many times as I possibly can get up here,” Starling said. 

Abraham Lincoln Lewis, Florida’s first Black millionaire, bought American Beach in the 1930s. It was one of the state’s few coastlines African Americans were allowed to enjoy prior to desegregation.

Starling began camping there in the late 90s.

“I survived an aneurysm on September 11, 1998,” Starling said. “After I came from rehab and that session of renewed life, I wanted to come out here and have lunch.”

What started as lunch ended up with Starling camping overnight with some friends, and thus began a 22-year tradition for a group that would become the “Night Sanders Campers.” The group now has its own logo and flyers for bi-yearly events, usually during the months of May and October.

the flyer has someone sitting on a beach chair looking out into the ocean with some palm trees.
Credit Sky Lebron / WJCT News
A flyer for the Night Sanders Campers, a group Ron Starling organized in 1998. The group didn't form a name until 2001.

At its peak, 80 to 100 campers would gather to learn about the history of American Beach, eat, and attend talks.  

Starling said he’s planned events for the group to head out to Big Talbot Island, Fort George, the American Beach Museum, and even host a health fair. 

“Or you just might want to sit there on your beach chair and read a book and take a nap,” he said.

But now, Starling says the tradition for his group and a few others is in jeopardy. 

A new proposed ordinance would add extra layers of regulations for beach campers, including: 

  • No camping between May and October 31 due to the Endangered Species Act.
  • A requirement to be registered as a nonprofit.
  • Obtain a county group camping permit through the Nassau County Public Works Department.
  • A permit application must be submitted to the Public Works Department for review at least 30 days prior to the camping event. A permit fee is established by the Nassau County Manager. 
  • A limit of two camping events per year for each group, and a three night limit.
  • Pay a $500 cleaning bond/deposit. 
  • Groups are limited to 30 people and 20 tents.
  • No generators, alcoholic beverages, portable showers or latrines. 
  • No electrically amplified music between 11 p.m. and 6 a.m.   
  • Violations could lead to second-degree misdemeanor charges and a $500 fine or 60 days in jail. 

“They don't want Black folks out here,” Starling said. “That's what it all boils down to."

Among the topics that bothered him the most is the limitation on the number of campers the group can host at one time.

“25 to 30 people is just the family,” Starling said. “We haven't even gotten to the guests yet. 30 people - that's 15 tents.”

The ordinance also says groups can camp only in the parking area behind the beach. 

“That's why we come here, to be on the beach. Not to be in the back of the parking lot, that's near the beach,” Starling said. 

Peri Frances-Betsch is Abraham Lincoln Lewis’ great, great granddaughter. She founded a beach camping group called American Beach Afrotopia that has hosted events since 2015.

“What I feel that what they did was basically ban without banning so it's a ban by any other name,” Frances-Betsch said. “They put so many restrictions in place that really cut to the heart and soul of what we were out to to accomplish with the campout.”  

Frances-Betsch is also the niece of the late MayVynee Betsch, an environmentalist and activist known as 

Boardwalk leading through some brush and grass to the shores of the beach
Credit Sky Lebron / WJCT News
A boardwalk that leads to the shores of American Beach. Abraham Lincoln Lewis purchased this stretch of beach for Black people to use in the 1930s.

“The Beach Lady,” who taught people the history of American Beach and the local environment.  

“She could tell you when the wind was gonna change, and when the tide was gonna arrive,” Frances-Betsch said of her aunt. 

Frances-Betsch said she’s skeptical of Nassau County officials who now care so much to protect the turtles, when her aunt was working on similar issues for years. 

“I'm definitely not wanting to do anything that would disturb nature or the environment,” Frances-Betsch said. “The whole point that we're out there is to learn and understand about how to live in harmony with nature and to be one with the environment. I think it's very highly ironic that all of a sudden now the Nassau County Commissioners are trying to portray themselves as staunch environmentalists.”

The ordinance was crafted after more than a year of meetings by a Beach Community Working Group made up of five Nassau County staffers and two residents.The group heard from coastal property owners who complained about loud music and illegal activities.

After roughly 15 meetings, they came up with a 100-plus page document filled with the group’s findings and recommendations. American Beach was mentioned just once, and it was from a public comment by Starling. 

Many of the complaints stemmed from nearby Peter’s Point, which is north of American Beach. 

“That was not a big secret here in the years-long worth of committee meetings,” said Butch Osborne, the Nassau County Sheriff’s Office Director of Operations. “The Peter’s Point area was the hot spot of the majority of this.”

Osborne was part of the Beach Community Working Group, along with Nassau County Manager Taco Pope. Both say they feel bad for the American Beach camping groups, but they can’t carve out exceptions for just one beach.

“If we, the board, makes the decision to ban camping at Peter's Point and allow camping in American Beach, all we've done is shift the problem from one beach to the other,” Pope said.

Pope said finding a solution that appeased both property owners and campers has been challenging.

“I think camping is the most difficult part of this entire ordinance because there are very strong feelings on all sides,” he said.

Frances-Betsch said she just wants to have some say in their tradition as Nassau County continues to grow rapidly. 

“They respect the resort communities, they respect the Omni Hotel, they respect the rich, and we’re just asking for the same respect,” Frances-Betsch said. 

The camping groups have gathered thousands of signatures on a petition calling for changes. Starling even chained himself to a stake at American Beach for two weeks in protest. 

So far, he doesn’t feel county officials have listened. 

“They have the power, they have the ability to do this. They have the money to do this. We don't have that kind of power. We don't have that kind of money,” Starling said.

Even if the ordinance passes, it’s not permanent. It would only apply until the end of the year, allowing the county commission to make tweaks and replace it with a long-term bill. 

But it could mean Starling’s annual fall campout is off, partially due to the new regulations and partially due to COVID-19 restrictions. 

As someone who’s seen American Beach become sandwiched between new businesses and hotels, Starling said it gives him mixed emotions.

“I have a yin-yang with this, because I want to see it grow,” Starling said. “But I also want to see it hold on to his historical rights and camping rights, and what made American Beach, American Beach.”

He says he’ll never give on trying to change the county’s mind.

“If you stop showing up at those meetings, if you stop not voicing your opinion, if you stop not asking questions, and being a thorn in their side, then you lost,” Starling said.

Monday’s vote on the beach ordinance is set to happen at the 6 p.m. Nassau County Commission meeting following a final public hearing. 

Sky Lebron can be reached at slebron@wjct.org, 904-358-6319 or on Twitter at @SkylerLebron.