By DOTTY NIST
After over a month’s lapse in the operation of Walton County’s “Leave No Trace” program, plans have been approved to put a modified form of the program in place within the next few weeks.
The program is part of the county’s Beach Ordinance No. 2003-07G.
With the goal of a clear beach in the evening, free of beach chairs, canopies, umbrellas, tents, and other obstacles, the program was initiated in summer 2007 under the name of “Remove it or Lose It,” as a cooperative effort of the South Walton Tourist Development Council (TDC), Walton County, and the Walton County Sheriff’s Office. Later the initiative was redubbed as “Leave No Trace,” dovetailing with an international program by that name aimed at reducing impacts of recreational activities.
While the program has encountered some heated opposition since its inception from beachfront property owners with property rights concerns, there has also been great community support for the program on the part of tourism leaders, local beachgoers, and especially from the South Walton Turtle Watch. This group of volunteers monitors the nesting of threatened and endangered sea turtles on the beach, the turtles’ reproductive habitat.
Leave No Trace has undergone some changes over time. Under the administration of Ralph Johnson, county sheriff through 2008, deputies placed tags on items left in all the sandy areas, regardless of property lines, along the coast, as a warning that the items would be confiscated within 24 hours if not removed by their owners. Exceptions were items placed at the dune line or under private boardwalks and large items covered by a special county permit. Tagged articles were then removed, once the 24-hour time period had elapsed, by TDC beach maintenance crews. These crews also removed nontagged items in the evening from TDC public accesses, where signs were displayed prohibiting articles from being left after sundown in the vicinity of the accesses.
Upon taking office in January 2009, County Sheriff Mike Adkinson was not willing to participate in the tagging program, citing potential legal problems with deputies going onto what someone might consider their yard for these duties. Adkinson also stated that he did not see enforcement of county ordinances a proper role for sheriff’s office personnel.
With tagging responsibilities having shifted to Walton County Code Enforcement officers, Walton County legal counsel Mike Burke called in May for TDC crews to suspend removal of items from the beach, unless a hazard, due to legal concerns. The concerns surfaced in conjunction with the Leave No Trace program being targeted with litigation by local beachfront property owners.
Soon there was a deluge of complaints from the community, as abandoned tents, umbrellas, chairs, and other articles piled up on the beaches, complaints that continue to be raised.
After a series of staff meetings between the TDC, code enforcement, and county admnistration, on June 30 proposed revisions to Leave No Trace were brought before the Walton County Board of County Commissioners (BCC) for consideration.
Sonny Mares, TDC executive director, told the commissioners that the working group had responded to directives from the county attorney that people leaving articles on the beach not only be notified and allowed a 24-hour period prior to their removal, but that the items should be held in storage for a 48-hour period to allow for their owners to claim them. Burke had also recommended that the TDC fill an educational role with the program and that code enforcement personnel be responsible for removing and putting the items in storage.
Mares detailed plans for the TDC to identify a staff person as a uniformed “beach ambassador” and charge that person with interacting with beachgoers in a friendly and positive way, while explaining all beach rules, safety issues, and conveying the message that tents, canopies, and other articles must be removed at night in the interest of sea turtle protection and safety of humans in the evening. Proposed as part of the plan was the purchase of a $12,000 John Deere “gator” vehicle to transport the ambassador along the beach, to be funded through the TDC beach maintenance account.
Other duties of the ambassador would be informing code enforcement of items left on the beach at night and also serving as a liaison with turtle watch volunteers who report such items left on the beach.
According to the plans, the ambassador would fulfill this educational role from March until September and switch to beach maintenance duties during the remainder of the year.
Mares was optimistic that, once informed, most beachgoers would be supportive of Leave No Trace. “We would be a friendly presence on the beach,” he said.
Burke explained that the “ultimate goal” of the program, as proposed, would be for code enforcement not to have to go on the beach at all, once beachgoers come to understand that items left on the beach at night do pose a hazard.
Matthew Gaetz, an attorney representing the Edgewater Beach Owners Association, pointed out that there is pending litigation against the county in connection with Leave No Trace. He asked the BCC if the Leave No Trace program was currently in operation.
Burke responded that the county intended to operate Leave No Trace as had been done in the past but with the hope that compliance would be achieved without the associated enforcement mechanism.
Gaetz noted that the owners association he represents has asked for the TDC beach maintenance crews not to pick up trash at their location, that the owners would happily be responsible for that task.
Poking fun at the beach ambassador position, Gaetz called the position “definitely entertaining” and “pretty cool,” adding that he hoped he would not be barred from applying for it.
County Commission Chair Sara Comander asked if he had an alternate suggestion. Gaetz responded that as a county taxpayer he would suggest “to not do that.”
In response to one of Gaetz’ topics, Comander brought up the possibility of entering into agreements with those who preferred to clean up trash on their beaches on their own, without assistance from the TDC beach maintenance crews.
Sharon Maxwell, executive director for the South Walton Turtle Watch, responded that the problem with owners associations doing their own beach cleaning is that they must follow the state requirement for the time of day it is done in order not to impact sea turtle nesting.
Maxwell expressed support for the revised Leave No Trace Program, stating that there have been five incidents of nesting sea turtle “false crawls” recently due to turtles running into tents, canopies or other obstacles and not being able to lay their eggs on the beach.
“We’ve got to try something,” Maxwell urged.
Mary Nielson requested that references in the revised language to “beach” be revised to distinguish between public and private property and asked for other clarifications. She was concerned that items would be taken off private property, with related legal issues not having been resolved.
“These poor sea turtles have no chance,” commented turtle watch volunteer Bobby Stuart. Stuart said that 114 beach tents and canopies had recently been counted within a 1.8-mile stretch of beach.
Stuart suggested not just one but 40 beach ambassador positions, as a summer job program for students. He also advocated filling the vacant beach activities director position so that the holder of that position could serve as a coordinator and liaison for the proposed educational initiative.
Stuart was also in favor of directing citations and fines at people who would not refrain from leaving obstacles on the beach at night.
The BCC approved the revised Leave No Trace program by unanimous vote.
Gerry Demers, county director of development services, oversees Walton County Code Enforcement. Contacted on July 1, Demers anticipated that Leave No Trace would go into operation within a couple of weeks, allowing time for the TDC beach ambassador to be selected and readied for work. Demers said code enforcement trucks are equipped to drive on the beach to pick up tents, canopies, and other items. He added that it would be necessary to add personnel or increase work hours initially until compliance with the program had been achieved through education. The department’s five officers currently work 10-hour shifts six days a week from 7 a.m to 5:30 p.m. Details to increase manpower in response to the added duties were yet to be worked out when “The Beach Breeze” spoke with Demers.
Dotty Nist may be contacted at email@example.com