SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
White sand, waves, water and cars. People have been driving on the hard-packed sand of Daytona Beach for more than a century. But as NPR's Greg Allen reports, there's now a debate about whether it's finally time to ban vehicles on Daytona Beach.
GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Cassie Brown has a favorite spot on Daytona Beach, one she visits almost every day in her car.
CASSIE BROWN: 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.
ALLEN: There are signs marking the traffic lanes on sections of the beach. On holidays and weekends, traffic can be bumper to bumper. 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.
CASSIE BROWN: I surf, my son's a surfer, so we drive down onto the beach and check the waves, drive up and down to see where they're better to surf at, park there.
ALLEN: Driving is not permitted on most beaches in Florida. But in Daytona Beach and other communities in Volusia County, it's considered a right, one protected by the county charter. It's a right that many residents strongly defend and which is sometimes called the third rail of Volusia politics. For decades, County Councilman Doug Daniels says questioning that right was off the table.
DOUG DANIELS: The tradition was so ingrained that nobody would really even talk about it. It was a taboo subject. The thing that brought it up was protecting the sea turtles.
ALLEN: In 1996, after a lawsuit, nine 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.
DANIELS: If you want to do quality, you have to provide a quality experience for your guest. And that does not entail having a bunch of cars parked in front of the hotel.
ALLEN: 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. Business leaders are frustrated though that their town has lagged behind many other seaside communities in attracting name-brand resorts. Hyatt Brown, chairman one of the nation's largest insurance brokers based in Daytona Beach, notes that the median family income of the area is well below the state average. The first step in economic development, he believes, is getting the cars off the beach.
HYATT BROWN: This is the best beach in Florida - period, zero. But it is not viewed as the best. So if you come and experience it and you don't have to fight the cars, then there will be a very good feeling and hopefully that will bring more people.
ALLEN: But there are a lot of people in Daytona Beach who see it differently, like Greg Gimbert.
GREG GIMBERT: Why would we give up what's special about our residential access so we could attract a customer base for a few oceanfront property owners?
ALLEN: A group of residents has filed a lawsuit challenging the County Council's latest bans. Gimbert founded a group that's trying to put any beach driving restrictions to a voter referendum.
GIMBERT: We've come to the point to where we once had 47 miles of beach driving, we're down to only 17. And it's getting to a point where they've squeezed the people out off their very own beach.
ALLEN: Gimbert says he and others in Daytona Beach are fighting what he calls a millionaires'-level privilege - the right to drive your car onto the sand and set up what's in essence an oceanfront home for the day on the beach. Greg Allen, NPR News, Daytona Beach.
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