County officials are searching policy stretching back more than a decade after church signs along Navarre Beach went missing last month amid potential enforcement action.
For 25 years, Beachside Church has been holding informal church services in the Navarre Beach Fishing Pier parking lot. As part of advertising these services, church pastor John Kerns and his wife place temporary signs along U.S. Highway 98 and along the beach roadways during the weekend.
Signage placed in the county or state right of way along roadways is illegal if not permitted by the governing body, but Kerns contends that he did consult both the County Commission and Florida Department of Transportation before placing signs.
Peter Birckhead, president of the Navarre Beach Leaseholders and Residents Association, filed complaints about the signs in December 2018.
Birckhead has been working to eliminate signage on the beach for several years. Birckhead said the issue with the signs does not involve the leaseholders’ association.
“It is all about signs and has nothing to do with the church. I don’t have any issue with the church. In fact, I think the church provides a great service. It is just about the signs,” he said.
In emails to county officials and to Kerns, Birckhead called the signs trash and demanded their removal.
“I have treated every offender the same to have them all brought under the same rules and regulations with the county,” he said.
In another email, Birckhead condemned the church’s efforts to continue putting up the signs despite his objections to the practice.
“John Kerns you should be ashamed of yourself, and I can tell you right now I am going to do everything in my power to get your church off the beach for good. You have crossed the line,” Birckhead wrote. “I will also work with every rental agency on the beach to have your church promotional materials removed from their rentals.”
Birckhead told the Navarre Press he regretted sending the message.
“In the heat of my frustration I generated an email that I would take back if I could,” he said.
County Code Compliance Supervisor Randy Jones said in an email to Birckhead that unpermitted signs in the right of way can be treated as “trash or debris” and removed accordingly.
Letters were issued to the church stating the signs were illegal.
When some of the church’s temporary signs went missing, Kerns said, he contacted the county and was informed that county staff did not do the pickup.
He estimated that the lost signs were worth $300. All other signs were removed by the church. Since then, an anonymous donor gave $200 for new signs. Local businessman Daryl Lynchard also helped to replace them, free of charge.
Kerns said he was surprised by the letters. He said back in 2007 he contacted county and state officials to make sure the church’s signage complied with regulations.
“We have always had a gentleman’s agreement with the state and the county,” Kerns said. “We just asked, and they told us what to do. But we didn’t have anything in writing.”
Bob Cole, who has been a member of the County Commission for 17 years, said he remembers the county coming to an agreement with Kerns regarding the church services being held in the pier parking lot. He said he believes the signs were also approved during that meeting.
All county action on the issue has ceased, and Cole said county staff is currently searching for documentation of an agreement with Kerns.
In the meantime, Cole said he does not support taking any action against the church or its signs.
Kerns has since begun placing the temporary signs back in the median but with added protection. They are now chained and padlocked to county signposts during the weekend.
“We will not be taking any further action on the church signs,” Birckhead said.