By DOTTY NIST
County commissioners will again be discussing the proposed Walton County Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP), and a decision on the plan may come at their Jan. 11 regular meeting.
This is despite recent events that may result in a threat to the funding of the $10.3-million plan.
Applying to the beach area and several years in the making, the HCP includes measures for conservation of native wildlife species and their habitat. The creation of the HCP resulted from an intergovernmental agreement between Walton County, the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Walton County entered the agreement to resolve issues related to “take” or harm to federally protected species raised by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials in connection with the county’s approval of permits for temporary coastal armoring in the emergency period following 2005 Hurricane Dennis. The county had approved the armoring to allow beachfront homeowners to shore up their property in the wake of Hurricane Dennis’ impacts.
Billy McKee, county environmental manager, will be presenting the HCP to the Walton County Board of County Commissioners (BCC) on Jan. 11. McKee said the draft agreement being presented is one that has been under discussion for several months, through a series of public workshops and in county commission session. This is the second draft of the HCP.
The primary purpose of the HCP is to cover the county for take issues related to armoring permits it issues in emergency periods following future storm events and related to the county’s projects to protect its beachfront property at those times. However, it is being proposed that some private property owners be included as participants with the HCP. Among these would be beachfront homeowners who constructed seawalls or armoring for which they were issued temporary permits by the county following Hurricane Dennis.
Several miles of armoring was constructed as a result of the emergency permitting, and much of that remains in place. The temporary armoring permits were issued with the understanding that, in order for the armoring to remain in place on a permanent basis, a state permit would be required. For the most part, state permits have not been issued for the armoring.
Participating in the county’s HCP would allow seawall owners to satisfy take-related requirements in order to obtain their state seawall permits. To participate, the seawall owners would be required to help fund the HCP.
It is estimated that the HCP will cost a total of $10.3 million over the 25-year period that it will be effective. Included in that cost calculation are ongoing county programs for which the county will receive credit in the HCP, including sea turtle monitoring and beachfront light management. Those ongoing programs have been determined to amount to all but approximately $3.1 million of the cost of the HCP. According to the proposal, beachfront homeowners who installed armoring as a result of the county’s issuance of post-Dennis temporary armoring permits would help bear the cost of that $3.1 million.
The county’s finance department has expressed a preference for funding of the $3.1 million through a special assessment to be paid by the owners of the properties participating in the HCP, and this is the funding plan detailed in the draft HCP. However, county staff is instead proposing a one-time fee from post -Dennis seawall owners who choose to participate, at a minimum cost of $100 per linear foot of seawall.
To share in funding the HCP, probably through a special assessment arrangement, would be beachfront property owners to whom the county issues temporary seawall permits during future emergency periods. McKee said the BCC might also consider allowing beachfront property owners applying for armoring through the state’s non-emergency permitting process to become participants and use the HCP to help fulfill their state armoring permitting requirements.
On Dec. 15, at the request of post-Dennis seawall owners, Walton County’s legislative delegation voted to introduce legislation that would remove the requirement for those property owners to obtain a state permit for their armoring.
There has been concern in the community that, if the legislation is approved as proposed, the motivation of these seawall owners to participate and share in funding of the county’s HCP would be removed, leaving taxpayers as a whole to shoulder the cost of the plan in full. However some seawall owners have stated that they would possibly still elect to participate in the HCP depending on their individual cost to do so.
McKee’s reaction to the possibility of the legislation removing the seawall owners’ requirement for a state permit was, “I would hate to see that happen.”
“I think the county wants them to have closure,” he said of the post-Dennis seawall owners. However he was of the opinion that exemptions from some of the state’s current conditions for obtaining an armoring permit would be a better option, to set the stage for permitting of properly-constructed armoring that does not pose unsuitable impacts to the beach environment. The advantage to this option would be accountability and tracking of permitted armoring, McKee explained.
“We’ve got to maintain the quality and integrity of the beaches,” McKee emphasized.
The action to be considered by the BCC on Jan. 11 will be whether to approve the HCP to be sent to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for review and evaluation as to whether the plan meets that agency’s requirements.
The BCC meeting is scheduled to begin at 4 p.m. and take place at the South Walton Courthouse Annex.
Information on the HCP is available by calling (850) 951-0551 or by logging on to the Walton County Web site, http://www.co.walton.fl.us. Under the heading “Your Government” select “Environmental Resources” and then “Habitat Conservation Plan.”