White sand, waves, water and cars?
People have been driving on the hard-packed sand of Daytona Beach for more than a century. Races were held on the beach until they were moved to the Daytona International Speedway in 1959.
After the racers left, cars and trucks continued to cruise on the sand. But now, there’s a debate raging about whether it’s finally time to ban vehicles on Daytona Beach.
Like many locals, Cassie Brown has a favorite spot on Daytona Beach — one she visits almost every day in her car.
“I love driving down, parking on the beach. I’ve got twins, so it’s easier to park on the beach and unload all my stuff. We’ve got all the sand toys, the boogie boards, chairs,” Brown says.
There are signs marking the traffic lanes on sections of the beach. On holidays and weekends, traffic can be bumper to bumper. But Brown says even her 4-year-old twins know to look both ways and watch for cars when they’re walking down to the water.
Driving along the beach, she says, makes it easy to find just the right spot.
“I surf, my son’s a surfer, so we drive down onto the beach to check on the waves. Drive up and down to see where they’re better to surf at, park there,” Brown says.
Driving is not permitted on most beaches in Florida. But in Daytona Beach and other communities in Volusia County, it’s considered a right, protected in the county charter. It’s a right so strongly defended by residents that it’s sometimes called the “third rail of Volusia politics.”
For decades, County Councilman Doug Daniels says questioning that right was off the table.
“The tradition was so ingrained that nobody would even talk about it. It was a taboo subject. The thing that brought it up was protecting sea turtles,” Daniels says.
After a lawsuit in 1996, 9 miles of beach were closed to driving to protect endangered sea turtles. Since then, county officials have closed other sections.
Over the summer, the County Council angered many locals when it took steps to ban beach driving in front of two new resort developments planned in Daytona Beach.
Daniels says for years, the presence of cars driving up and down the beach has discouraged developers from building luxury resorts there.
“If you want to do quality, you have to provide a quality experience for your guests. And that does not entail having a bunch of cars parked in front of the hotel,” he says.
With the Daytona International Speedway and events like Bike Week, an annual gathering that attracts hundreds of thousands of motorcyclists, Daytona Beach has a well-known brand. That said, business leaders are frustrated that their town has lagged behind many other seaside communities in attracting name-brand resorts.
Hyatt Brown, chairman of one of the nation’s largest insurance brokers based in Daytona Beach, notes that the median family income in the area is well below the state average. He believes the first step in economic development is getting the cars off the beach.
“This is the best beach in Florida — period, zero. But it is not viewed as the best. So if you come and experience and you don’t have to fight the cars, then there will be a very good feeling and hopefully that will bring more people,” Brown says.
But there are a lot of people in Daytona Beach who see it differently, like Greg Gimbert.
“Why would we give up what’s special about our residential access so we can attract a customer base for a few oceanfront property owners?” says Greg Gimbert, who founded a group that’s trying to put any beach driving restrictions to a voter referendum.
A group of residents has also filed a lawsuit challenging the County Council’s latest bans.
“We’ve come to the point now where we once had 47 miles of beach driving. We’re now down to only 17. And it’s getting to the point where they’ve squeezed the people out off their very own beach,” Gimbert says.
Gimbert says he and others in Daytona Beach are fighting for what he calls “a millionaires’-level privilege” — the right to drive your car onto the sand and set up, in essence, an oceanfront home for the day.