By DOTTY NIST
There is no question that Walton County’s Timpoochee Trail bicycle/pedestrian path network in south Walton County is very popular for tourists and residents; the question is where the county can find funding to maintain the path in a safe fashion, plus improve the trail network with new bicycle/pedestrian bridges.
On July 24, county commissioners and the public discussed whether it might be possible to use tourist or bed tax money for this purpose, among other possible funding sources. The discussion took place at the regular Walton County Board of County Commissioners (BCC) meeting on that date at the Walton County Courthouse in DeFuniak Springs.
Many visitors to south Walton County bring their bicycles with them, while others rent bicycles from a number of bike rental businesses in the area.
District 2 Commissioner Kenneth Pridgen brought up the topic, observing that millions are spent advertising the county as a tourist destination—and that there is a need to make the bike path safe and enjoyable for tourists’ vacations. He pointed to the need for more bicycle/pedestrian bridges in the trail network. The county needs to look at methods of funding to make the bike path “something Walton County should be proud of,” Pridgen urged.
District 5 Commissioner Cecilia Jones agreed. She identified the part of the path along Western Lake Bridge on CR-30A as a safety issue for trail goers. Additional paths are needed, as well, Jones commented.
“We have a responsibility to the people who pay that tax,” Pridgen said of the tourist bed tax charged on short-term accommodations in south Walton County.
District 4 Commissioner Sara Comander said she had just “staycationed” in south Walton County with her grandchildren. “Man, people are on bicycles!” she observed. Comander agreed that the county should look for any grant or other revenue to expand the trail system, keep it clean, and add bicycle/pedestrian bridges in needed areas.
County Commission Chairman Scott Brannon identified the first step as having Walton County Public Works work up needs for the bike path and bring that information before the BCC.
Gerry Demers, acting county administrator, agreed to have staff furnish that information to the commissioners.
Anita Page of the South Walton Community Council (SWCC) noted that the organization had sent a letter to the BCC on this topic in June. Page said the SWCC supports the construction of two pedestrian bridges across Western Lake on CR-30A. She reminded the commissioners that the county had tried to get a state grant for this project but had been unable to do so.
Page was of the opinion that if the target time for completion of the path improvements was the beginning of next year’s tourist season, “time is of the essence.” Page said the SWCC had provided the BCC with a state attorney general’s opinion indicating that bed taxes could be expended for the bike path. She said she understood that there was “some reticence” to do so. She asked the commissioners how this could be “jump started.”
Pridgen suggested pulling together what the costs would be, bringing up the needs at the BCC’s next budget meeting, and looking at ways then to fund needs for the trails. The next budget meeting is scheduled for 5 p.m on Sept. 10 at the South Walton Courthouse Annex.
Comander suggested having Walton County Attorney Toni Craig look at the attorney general’s opinion that Page had referenced.
South Walton Tourist Development Council (TDC) Executive Director Dawn Moliterno said that the SWCC had not provided her with a copy of the attorney general’s opinion. She added that the TDC did get opinions for the current TDC attorney Clay Adkinson and from previous TDC attorneys Lynn Hoshihara, Gary Vorbeck, and Burke and Blue that bed taxes could not be used for this purpose. Moliterno recommended getting an attorney general’s opinion regarding this particular project.
Cecilia Jones said she would like to obtain an opinion on the issue from Craig as well.
Comander commented that she understood that bed tax money could not be used for improvements to U.S. 331, but she was of the opinion that the situation was different with the bike path, which she termed a “tourist attraction” for “family-friendly vacations.”
Santa Rosa Beach resident Bonnie McQuiston told the commissioners that she walks the bike path daily and sees it being used by tourists. New bicycle rental businesses are springing up all over the area, she added. “It is definitely tourist related,” she said of the path.