By LEAH STRATMANN
The South Walton County Tourist Development Council (TDC) continues to report good news about increasing bed tax revenues over 2007. To date, more than $11 million has been collected through September 2008, representing an increase of 5.18 percent over last year. This information was provided in the regular monthly meeting last week.
Under the category of old business, Dave Sell, the manager for beach maintenance, reported on three public meetings held to discuss the construction of restrooms at Inlet Beach. He said the main concerns of the public were the location of the facilities, which originally called for construction 80 feet seaward from the road, which would have resulted in destroying too much scrub habitat. After looking at it again, designers decided to put the structure closer to the road.
Sell said people were also concerned about the size. “People felt it was too large and would destroy too much vegetation habitat. The third issue was the environment, but after inspecting a waterless system elsewhere in the state, it was decided a more traditional facility would be better,” Sell noted. “The staff feels we have an obligation to meet not only today’s needs, but also to look to the future by building a bigger restroom now. One percent of scrub habitat will be affected by the construction of the larger restroom.”
Inlet Beach resident Anna Hamer said the neighborhood is opposed to a larger facility. “It is close to 2,000 square feet of scrub that will be disturbed. We just think that is way too much. Inlet Beach is the largest park the TDC operates, but it is not the busiest. When the area was built, we were told we needed 100 parking spaces because of future growth. On the busiest days, like the Fourth of July, there are maybe 10 cars in the lot. We have alternative ideas for construction. We don’t think as much land needs to be destroyed. There is $250,000 budgeted for this project. There is enough cleared land beyond the parking pad to construct a smaller bathroom. There is no reason to tear down so many trees. People come to Inlet Beach for the quiet and the dunes. These people don’t want to look at a large cupola on top of a building which blocks the sunset,” she said.
Hamer noted volunteers have drawn up alternative plans for restroom facilities to meet the needs of visitors, as well as complying with ADA code for the handicapped. “The other idea we had was for the TDC to sponsor a design contest for this bathroom that would involve the community and help promote the area at the same time,” she said.
“The other thing I would like to see happen is for the TDC to submit a new management plan to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Phase III of the park calls for the installation of grills and picnic tables and we are opposed to that. Cooking and more garbage is not going to help the park. It is outdated. There is no reason to spend extra money. Our bottom line is that it is not about our neighborhood, it is about preserving the park.”
Sell said the committee did look at building the facility closer to the road, but noted they have to meet county setback requirements.
Board member Ken Gifford said, “You said there are 16 acres left. I think the percentage of land that will be taken is very minor. There is building everywhere around it and there is no beach access. Access is going to get tighter and tighter around the area. I think Inlet Beach can really serve the community. I’m in favor of moving ahead with this.”
Inlet Beach Betty Lecher said, “Just look at what we are talking about. We really would like to see restrooms right at Orange Street before you make a final decision.”
Board member Don McQuade noted, “A lot has gone on to get us to where we are. I don’t think we, as an organization, should push something the community doesn’t want. The traditional large restroom is not our only choice. The design options they presented this morning put some interesting alternatives on the table. The optional designs present some things to consider. Family-accessible restrooms are a big thing and it needs to be looked at. I liked the rustic look of the designs submitted and they blend in with the area around it. I think we ought to send this back to the beach management committee since it is obvious the community does not want it. I don’t think we should be at a crossroads. A little more delay isn’t the worst thing in the world,” he concluded.
Board member Mary Brown noted, “The bathroom design is part of the branding of the ‘Beaches of South Walton’ and we don’t want to lose that.”
Hamer countered saying, “A branding design does not work in this neighborhood. It is important for people to realize the TDC can be open minded.”
McQuade agreed, reminding the Council of the sign debacle and made a motion to toss out the plans for a big bathroom and send the issue back to committee. The motion was passed by all.
The other action items passed included sending 10 of the big blue signs to the Walton County Fire District and one to the Walton County Emergency Operations Center where they will be reworked for use by those agencies, as well as investigating the replacement of white retail signs along U.S. 98 and U.S. 331 with the excess TDC wayfinding signs and come back to the council when a plan is developed.
Jennifer Steel Saunders was nominated fill a vacancy on the board for a four-year term. The Council approved and her name will be given to the Walton County Board of County Commissioners (BCC) for approval. Also the term of Ken Gifford was extended for an additional four years.