By LEAH STRATMANN
After years of extensions and lawsuits, on Aug. 28, administrative judge T. Kent Wetherell II issued his opinion stating the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) is within its rights to request removal of an armoring structure in Inlet Beach.
One of the expert witnesses for the state was Gary Appelson of the Caribbean Conservation Corporation and Sea Turtle Survival League. Appelson said his organization went to great lengths to try and prevent Walton County from issuing temporary sea wall permits in 2005, sending letters to the editors of all the local newspapers.
“Back in 2005 when the county was allowing all these walls to go in, we sent emails and letters to county officials warning them repeatedly that the walls they were permitting were likely illegal and would not be eligible for a final state permit. The state also tried to warn the county and local residents. Pretty much, our concerns were ignored,” he said.
“The local government in Walton County granted the temporary sea wall permits. There is a whole list of requirements that needed to be followed that were ignored by local government. Citizens have a list of requirements which they ignored, as did the contractors,” he said.
“The contractors should have known better. When they went to get the permanent permits from FDEP, FDEP would not give them the permits telling them they sea walls were built in the wrong place,” Appelson said. “We went to court and the judge ruled the FDEP is right. It’s unfortunate these people got stuck in the middle because the county failed to do the right thing and they got irresponsible advice from the contractors. This situation results from contractors and the local government’s failure to follow the law, and that’s unfortunate,” he concluded.
The property owners are Barbara Jackson, Murl Howell, Tiger Joint Ventures and Lanikai Investments LLC. The Howell and Jackson properties are single-family homes built before 1985 and deemed “vulnerable” and “eligible” for armoring under FDEP guidelines. The other two properties are vacant lots between the two homes. The parties involved spent $780,000 to install geotubes filled with sand and buried along the beach. The tubes, measuring 100 feet by 25 feet, are intended to protect the homes from storm damage. The judge ruled the tubes extended too far out onto the beach and the structure was not the right type for the site.
Murl Howell, one of the parties involved in the lawsuit, is dismayed about the decision. “You save all your life and you try to save your home and this happens. We haven’t decided whether or not to appeal.
“We were not informed it was inappropriate to build. The FDEP knew it was going up and never said to stop; they waited until we were through and then came. I understand it was only six feet too far out and I don’t know if they will allow us to remove just six feet of it. It’s mind-boggling,” she said. “I guess one of us should have been watching the whole time. I just assumed it was being taken care of by the contractors. We all make mistakes,” she said.
Appelson contends the builders knew the structure they were building under the auspices of a temporary permit would likely be denied a final permit. “Our organization as well as the FDEP did everything we could to avoid this situation. We did everything we could to alert them to the fact that what they were permitting were not going to get a FDEP permit.”
The future is unclear. The decision of the judge is not final, according to the press office of the FDEP who sent the following e-mail:
“The Administrative Law Judge’s (ALJ) recommended order was issued on August 28th. This case is still in litigation. The ALJ’s recommended order is not a final and enforceable order. The Parties have 10 days from the issuance of the recommended order to file exceptions to the recommended order. The Department requested a two-week extension of time for the parties to file their exceptions to the recommended order. The motion for extension of time was granted and the parties now have until September 19, 2008 to file exceptions, and then the parties have 10 days to file responses to the other parties exceptions. The Department will have 90 days (plus two weeks, to account for the parties’ extension of time to file exceptions) to issue a Final Order, which will be enforceable pursuant to section 120.69, Florida Statutes.”
Appelson however is convinced the recommended order will become final. “The ruling speaks for itself. The judge found these walls were illegal and placed too far out on the beach. The judge agreed with the FDEP and said the tubes were placed too far out on the beach in violation of the law. There is teeth in this. They [FDEP] have the authority to force compliance. You can be sure that groups like ours will make sure that FDEP does the right thing.”