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Legislators to file bill for Walton County seawalls

Dec 23rd, 2010 | 0

By DOTTY NIST

Walton County’s legislative delegation has made a decision to file a bill in the Florida Legislature addressing the matter of coastal armoring or seawalls constructed along the Walton County gulf as a result of Hurricane Dennis.

During the emergency period following the July 2005 hurricane, Walton County issued permits to beachfront property owners in order for the homeowners to put up temporary armoring to shore up their property. The permits were issued with the understanding that a state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) permit would be required in order for armoring to stay in place on a permanent basis. Property owners built several miles of seawalls and other armoring in connection with the emergency county permits, much of which is still in place. However, years later, post-Dennis seawall owners have for the most part been unsuccessful in obtaining state armoring permits.

On Dec. 15, at a public hearing held by the legislation delegation in Walton County, beachfront homeowner Emmett Hildreth, in the company of a group of other seawall owners, presented a bill that, if approved, would remove the requirement of a state permit for coastal armoring constructed following Hurricane Dennis, between July 1 and April 30, 2005. The proposed legislation is termed a local bill because it applies to one specific area.

Hildreth told the delegation, which included Brad Drake (R-Eucheeanna), Marti Coley (R-Marianna), Don Gaetz (R-Niceville), and Greg Evers (R-Baker), that approximately 190 properties were involved. He estimated that there were approximately 10,000 people that the legislation would “materially affect.”

Since paying their fees to obtain state armoring permits, the property owners have encountered “a nighmare stalemale,” Hildreth complained, adding “the Florida DEP is sitting on the permits.”

“If you cannot get a permit, you cannot sell your property,” Hildreth told the legislators. He also contended that property values had fallen as a result of the homeowners’ inability to obtain state armoring permits.

“We’re just asking you to do what is right, what is fair.” Hildreth urged. He read the bill language, and the seawall owners in attendance broke out in applause as he concluded his remarks.

Gaetz quickly made a motion for the local bill to be filed in the legislature. Evers seconded the motion.

The meeting was then opened up for public comment on both sides of the issue.

South Walton County resident Jacquee Markel, the first person to speak, expressed her opposition to the bill. Markel found it to be “fundamentally wrong” to take decisions on the seawalls out of the normal review process underway with DEP. She called the filing of the bill “bad policy” and “a bad precedent.” She told the legislators that citizens rely on DEP to ensure that what is built on the beach complies with state regulations. It was her opinion that the walls found to be in compliance should remain and that the ones not meeting state standards should come down.

Drake, serving as delegation chair, then noted that Walton County is a party of interest in connection with the legislation. He called upon Gerry Demers for his comments. Demers is currently assistant county administrator.

Demers noted that he was serving with the Walton County Building Department at the time of  “the seawall incident.” He recalled that the building department had issued the emergency armoring permits, making it clear to permittees that “these were temporary walls.” This was also stated in a brochure provided to the people obtaining permits, he added.

Demers however noted that he would like to see the situation with the seawalls resolved. He suggested removing “roadblocks” to permitting now posed by state statutory language. The language sets several requirements in order for a seawall to be permitted, including proper siting, protection of an eligible structure, and the existence of vulnerability on the property, Demers explained. He suggested the removal of some or all of these requirements in order for existing post-Dennis seawalls to be permitted. Another “roadblock,” a federal beach habitat issue raised by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), is close to being resolved with the Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP) close to being approved by the county, Demers noted.

Once permitted, the seawalls could then be monitored for impacts, Demers concluded.

“We do seriously want to get this issue worked out,” said Walton County Environmental Manager Billy McKee….

Read the full story in the December 23, 2010 edition of the Herald Breeze.

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