By DOTTY NIST
Most of the discussion at the first public workshop on the Walton County Beach Activities Ordinance was focused on the topic of vending of beach chairs and umbrellas on the beaches.
Walton County requires a permit for vendors to provide goods and services on the beach. A county beach vending permit grants the vendor the right to sell or rent specified goods or services from a fixed location on the beach.
The workshop took place on Nov. 7 at the South Walton Courthouse Annex. It was hosted by Walton County Administration and led by Gerry Demers, Walton County interim administrator. Jeff McVay of the South Walton Tourist Development Council (TDC) also provided remarks. McVay is enforcement officer for the beach-related county code provisions. Present as well were members of the county planning and environmental staff, and TDC staff, along with current District 5 Commissioner Cecilia Jones, County Attorney Toni Craig, and Cindy Meadows, commissioner-elect for District 5.
Demers explained that about six month previous, the Walton County Board of County Commissioners (BCC) had directed him to hold workshops on the beach activities ordinance to look at revisions to make the ordinance clearer and more enforceable. While this was his scope of work, Demers told the gathering that he would take comments on all aspects of the ordinance and would relay those to the commissioners. He explained that the current ordinance had been one passed by the county for which the old version of the ordinance had not been deleted. He said duplicated material would be deleted as part of the upcoming ordinance revision.
Regarding vehicles permitted to drive on the beach in specific areas, Demers commented that the Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP) approved by the BCC about a year ago prohibits vehicles on the beach during the sea turtle nesting season earlier than 8 a.m. or prior to the morning survey for sea turtle nests is completed. The purpose of the HCP is to mitigate for activities and structures on the beach that may have a negative impact on native wildlife.
It is proposed that the word “sunrise” in the ordinance be replaced with “8 a.m.” for consistency with the HCP, and it is proposed that an exception for vehicles launching boats prior to that time be eliminated.
The ordinance’s prohibition on ATVs on the beach was discussed. A representative of Seascape urged for allowing ATVs on the beach to launch jet skis and deliver other equipment to beach goers. He saw this as a benefit in eliminating the need for storage boxes on the beach.
“We have to mitigate for any driving on the beach,” Demers said. He was of the opinion that the ordinance was not intended to allow unlimited driving on the beach for delivery of beach equipment. Demers explained that the county could be held responsible for a “take” of protected species in connection with beach driving.
One proposed addition to the ordinance would require permits for all weddings being held at public beach accesses in order to avoid two weddings being held at the same time at the same access.
Another addition would specify that food and beverage vending is not allowed on county beaches, nor are vending activities that include a generator or running water.
One of the vendors in attendance had a concern about a proposed addition that would place restrictions on vendors that do not have a defined area for providing goods and services. This would require the vendor to deliver the items only at the road side of the property, unless the owner or renter of a specific one or two-family beachfront residence requested delivery of the equipment, in which case the items could be set up on the beach side of the residence.
The vendor complained that the provisions would make it hard to take care of people not staying on the beach who requested that equipment be brought in for them. He warned that if it were not possible for vendors to provide for these people, they would just go to Walmart and buy chairs and umbrellas.
“I don’t want you guys to shut me down,” he said.
It was pointed out that renting equipment results in many fewer beach chairs and umbrellas ending up in landfills.
The recommended language would also require that these vendors completely remove the items from the beach at the end of the day rather than storing them at the toe of the dune for use the following day.
Another vendor in attendance objected to this restriction, commenting that vendors had been allowed to store equipment at the toe of the dune the previous season and that in his opinion this had worked well.
“These are small businesses;” Meadows asserted, “we are supposed to be helping them.” “This is exactly the thing that we talk about not doing,” she said of the restrictions.
“I’m here to get your input,” Demers told the vendors.
Commissioner Jones said she had sometimes received the comment that people do not know who has exclusive vending rights to a beach area, that communication is sometimes lacking on the matter. She added that equipment storage boxes may not be the most beautiful thing in the world but that they do serve a purpose.
One of the vendors agreed, saying that the equipment wears out much quicker if it is not stored in boxes, yet some beachfront condos tell vendors that they do not want storage boxes.
Beachfront homeowner Sharon Higgins complained that equipment is not always taken to the toe of the dune at night but left out on the beach. She also saw a problem with allowing multiple vendors within a short stretch of beach.
Sharon Maxwell, director for the South Walton Turtle Watch, commented that, even when items are stored at the toe of the dune, they can still present a problem for nesting female sea turtles. Bumping into equipment stored there can cause them to return to the water without nesting, a.k.a. a “false crawl”, she explained.
Maxwell also highlighted the problem of vendors setting up on the beach in the morning before sea turtle surveys are completed.
One of the vendors suggested that they be allowed get training as sea turtle volunteers so that they could conduct the surveys in their areas themselves before setting up. “We want to help,” he said.
Maxwell responded that state authorities had said they would not agree to this due to a conflict of interest on the part of the vendors. “We’re off the beach by 7 a.m., anyway,” she said.
A vendor pointed out that this year’s sea turtle nesting season had been the best ever in Walton County. Maxwell responded that there had also been a record number of false crawls.
Demers said that, from what he was hearing from the vendors, storing equipment at the toe of the dune might be the better alternative. With this option, standards would be needed, he observed, possibly including a minimum distance between stacks.
Meadows suggested having the TDC look into a structure attached to dune walkovers that could be used to store chairs used by any of the vendors. This could be provided free of charge to vendors providing services on the beach, she explained.
A vendor commented that he would be fine with storing equipment under the boardwalk, and that he would only store equipment that would be needed by a renter for the following day.
Higgins recommended that, if equipment were being stored under a boardwalk, a wood pallet be put down under it to avoid scraping.
Demers warned the vendors that when they set up groups of chairs in a way that “nobody can walk,” on the beach they were hurting their own business….
Read the full story in the Nov. 15, 2012 edition of the Herald Breeze.