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Commission chair responds to “cash cow” remarks

Jan 27th, 2011 | 0

By DOTTY NIST

“Never have we held anyone at sword point,” said Walton County Commission Chairman Larry Jones, in reference to the issue of post-Hurricane Dennis seawalls in Walton County.

Contacted by the DeFuniak Herald/Breeze on Jan. 19, Jones responded to comments by Senator Don Gaetz (R-Niceville) in the local press two days earlier. These were remarks regarding a local bill being proposed to resolve permitting issues with seawalls construction in Walton County after 2005 Hurricane Dennis. The comments were critical of the county’s actions toward property owners with seawalls constructed following the hurricane.

Walton County’s legislative delegation voted on Dec. 15 to file the legislation, which, if approved in its original form, would relieve the post-Dennis seawall owners of the requirement to obtain a state permit for their armoring.

During the emergency period following the hurricane, Walton County had issued permits to beachfront property owners authorizing them to construct temporary armoring to shore up their property, with the understanding that each permittee would be required to either remove the structure within six months or obtain a state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) permit for their armoring. Over four years later, the several miles of armoring constructed as a result of those temporary permits for the most part is still in place but not yet permitted by the state.

On Jan. 11, the Walton County Board of County Commissioners (BCC) approved a letter of concern to be sent to the legislative delegation on the topic of the seawall legislation. While opposing exempting the seawalls “from any permit conditions” due to the county’s concerns about potential impacts on “the character and integrity of the beach and dune system,” the letter put forth the belief that a compromise on the legislation would be possible. It suggests that the state be allowed to waive its current “eligibility and vulnerability” criteria in connection with armoring applications, providing for the permitting of applications meeting all other conditions, among those being proper construction and the absence of negative impacts to adjacent properties and the dune system. The letter states the county’s opinion that issuing armoring permits as opposed to removing the permit requirement would “legitimize the structure and facilitate maintainance accountability and tracking.”

Also on Jan. 11, Walton County Attorney Lynn Hoshihara had stated, “We agree with the intent of the legislation,” explaining that it is the mechanics and wording of the bill that the county is trying to work out in order to satisfy its concerns.

On Jan. 17, comments on the matter by Gaetz appeared in the Northwest Florida Daily News, with Gaetz referring to the seawall bill as “a matter of simple justice,” and stating that it would be wrong to “decertify” the structures at this time, since local government gave the homeowners permission to build the seawalls in the first place.

The article also referenced a statement by Gaetz that the Walton County commissioners were looking to the seawall permitting issue as “a new revenue source.” It included the quote by Gaetz, “I think that the County Commission looks on these folks as a cash cow. If these property owners can be stopped from using their own property and forced to pay a high fee, that puts a government agency in the position of collecting revenue almost at a sword’s point.”

Responding on Jan. 19 to Gaetz’ remarks contained in the article, County Commission Chair Jones went into the history of the post-Hurrricane Dennis Seawalls. He recalled that, in the wake of the hurricane and its erosional impacts along the Walton County coast, the county had asked DEP if it would be possible to provide help, at beachfront homeowners’ request, in the form of temporary armoring permits to allow the property owners to shore up their property. DEP agreed, Jones recalled, and the county made the permits available, with the understanding that the permits were for temporary armoring which must either be removed within six months or permitted by state authorities. “This was very clear,” he said.

Jones said the county’s authority was limited to the issuance of temporary permits only, and also that this was possible only during the declared emergency period following the hurricane. Normally, he noted, and outside of the emergency period, as structures being placed forward of the coastal construction control line (CCCL), such armoring would have been subject solely to the state’s jurisdictional authority.

Jones explained that U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had later required the county to apply for an incidental take permit (ITP) and develop a Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP) to resolve issues raised by the agency related to “take” or harm to federally protected endangered species and their habitat in connection with the county’s issuance of the temporary armoring permits. With property owners who had constructed seawalls also becoming subject to requirements for individual ITP and HCP requirements in connection with their state armoring permit applications, Jones said the county had obtained permission to include seawall  owners who so desired as part of the county’s ITP and HCP. The county plans to require the individual homeowners who wish to partcipate to pay a pro-rata share to support the HCP, he explained.

The fee being proposed for post-Hurricane Dennis seawall owners to participate in the county HCP is a one-time payment of $100 per linear foot of seawall. Activities included in HCP are expected to cost a total of $10.3 over the 25-year period it will be effective, with credit for ongoing and currently-funded county programs to account for all but approximately $3.1 million of that cost.

Jones stressed that participation by the homeowners is in no way mandatory, and that all fees from homeowners in connection with the county’s HCP will go in a conservation fund to support the HCP.

“There is no cash cow,” he said.

Jones said the statement that the county was attempting to stop homeowners from using and protecting their property was “certainly not correct.” “If anything, we have attempted to assist,” he said. “There has been no malice,” he added.

Contacted on Jan. 21, Senator Gaetz commented that the issue with the legislative delegation had been whether the homeowners would be able to protect their property. He said his understanding from the county’s letter of concern, on which his earlier comments were based, was that the county would oppose legislation to allow the seawalls to remain in place.

“If the county has dropped its opposition to the bill, that’s good news,” he said.

Regarding his reference to Walton County looking to the seawall owners for a new revenue source, Gaetz said that in listening to testimony by the county at the Dec. 15 legislative delegation meeting, at which the legislators voted to proceed with the filing of the local bill, that he had understood it to be the county’s desire to generate additional revenue with the fees that the property owners would pay to participate in the HCP. He said he had not been aware that the homeowners’ participation would not be mandatory or that the fees would go into a conservation fund.

Gaetz said he certainly was not opposed to a habitat conservation plan or conservation fund. He added that, as a property owner in south Walton County for many years, he strongly supported conservation of the beach habitat.

Seawall owners met on Jan. 19 in Tallahassee with DEP representatives, with county staff and other county citizens also in attendance, for work on proposed wording for the local bill. The bill is expected to be filed by State Representative Marti Coley (R-Marianna) in the 2011 legislation session, which begins in March.

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