By DOTTY NIST
Community members recently got their say on Walton County’s “wish list” of projects proposed for funding through the Natural Resources Damage Assessment (NRDA) process.
This was at a May 7 Walton County Board of County Commissioners (BCC) workshop at the South Walton Courthouse Annex.
NRDA is a legal process to determine restoration needed to compensate the public for harm to natural resources and human uses, in this instance as a result of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Some restoration projects, termed early restoration, are being implemented as planning proceeds to address the full range of damages.
In April 2011, BP agreed to provide $1 billion for early restoration projects, with Florida’s share of that amount to be $100 million. The approval process for projects has been a three-step one, with state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) approval required first, then approval by Florida’s NRDA trustees and by BP.
On May 17, 2011, Walton County submitted a list of projects proposed for funding from Florida’s $100 million. These included a gulf fishing pier at Grayton Beach State Park, the county’s Habitat Conservation Plan, artificial reef construction, dune monitoring and restoration, water quality monitoring/restoration of the 15 coastal dune lakes, sea turtle monitoring/population restoration, shorebird monitoring and habitat/population restoration, water quality monitoring/restoration of Choctawhatchee Bay, beach nourishment, and projects to address recreational loss. Also proposed were infrastructure projects to offset water quality impacts, including stormwater upgrade retrofits, stream and shoreline protection, and wetland restoration.
Public input on the project list was sought at a workshop a week later at the South Walton Annex.
In August 2011, the BCC was asked to rank its top five projects from the 12 on its NRDA project list. At the Aug. 12 BCC meeting, the commissioners selected as their top five the fishing pier, a fish hatchery/research center, construction of 20 offshore and inshore artificial reefs, water quality investigation, monitoring and restoration of the 15 coastal dune lakes, and projects to address recreational loss. The latter proposal would combine land acquisition, improvements to beach accesses and parks, including construction of dune walkovers, and improvements to the Kellogg Nature Center property.
Walton County Environmental Manager Billy McKee began the recent NRDA prooject worshop by discussing the previous week’s announcement that Walton County’s number-three-ranked proposal for artificial reefs had been selected for funding through a combined package with other counties.
The counties are Walton, Escambia, Santa Rosa, Bay and Franklin, and the projects will total $11.4 million. McKee said he was awaiting more information on the project package.
In all, NRDA early restoration funding was announced for approximately $58 million in projects statewide.
In addition to the funding for artificial reefs, Walton County is to share in $3 million in funding for enhancement and re-creation of scallop fishing opportunities throughout the Panhandle.
McKee told county commissioners and workshop attendees that, with the projects just announced, $69 million of Florida’s original $100 million for early restoration projects had been “spoken for.”
He suggested a look at projects six through 12 on the county’s list of proposed NRDA projects, since those had not yet been ranked by the commissioners.
District 4 Commissioner Sara Comander discussed moving up one of those projects, Walton County’s Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP), which provides protection for endangered and threatened species along the coast. With the Wildlife Lighting Ordinance as its centerpiece, the HCP was developed in response to regulatory authorities’ concerns about the impact of seawalls permitted by the BCC during the emergency period following Hurricane Dennis. McKee estimated that the HCP could be fully implemented at a cost of approximately $3 million.
District 3 Commissioner Bill Imfeld asked McKee if he thought BP paid attention to how Walton County ranked or prioritized projects on their list.
“Probably not,” McKee responded.
Representing the South Walton Community Council (SWCC), Anita Page expressed concern about a “noticeable decline” in observable species in the vicinity of the coastal dune lakes. Since the county is promoting a number of projects involving the dune lakes, she suggested the addition of a species inventory. Page suggested a “watershed approach,” with the county meeting with other stakeholders with regard to the lakes.
A number of the lakes still have culverts on CR-30A rather than bridges, Page added, making it difficult for erosion into the lakes to be controlled. She also spoke of invasive plants that have become a problem in the dune lakes, urging for stakeholder meetings and brainstorming on ways to combat these plants. South Walton County resident Bonnie McQuiston, who spoke later, also asked the commissioners to look at what could be done to get rid of the invasive plant growth.
Page suggested partnering with state agencies and environmental organizations with project proposals.
She called for a different approach with what is known as the “Angelo’s” beachfront parcel, which is being proposed for acquisition under the category of recreational loss compensation. Page suggested proposing the acquisition of this 2.78-acre property in Seagrove, which features an intact dune system, under the category of habitat enhancement for the beach mouse.
McKee was receptive to this approach and to Page’s other suggestions. In response to a question, he said the Angelo’s property could still be used for public beach access if acquired for beach mouse habitat.
Page asked for details on the proposed fishing pier at Grayton Beach State Park. She was concerned about parking for the pier and about who would be responsible for maintaining the pier.
Cliff Knauer of Preble-Rish, county engineering consultants, provided details. Knauer said a number of meetings were held about the pier proposal between the South Walton Tourist Development Council (TDC) and state park leadership, who had expressed enthusiasm about the proposal. The meetings took place a number of years ago.
Knauer said the question had been asked why Walton County does not have a fishing pier on the Gulf of Mexico, while other coastal counties from Escambia to Bay have one or more gulf fishing piers. He explained that a location had been sought where a fishing pier would have minimal impact, adding that there would be no impact on the dunes at Grayton Beach State Park with the proposal.
The proposal calls for a 1,000-foot-long pier and the addition of a 100-space parking deck on top of the current 80-space parking lot at the park. Knauer said he and his colleagues had put the proposal together free of charge and that he hoped the pier would become a reality regardless of who would be doing the project.
“I would love to see us put in a fishing pier,” Knauer said.
He said the proposal called for Walton County to maintain the pier and that gate fees should be sufficient to defray those costs. In the event that the pier suffered damage and there was a need to replace it, Knauer explained, FEMA funding would cover 75 percent of that cost.
Knauer was of the opinion that both people living north of the bay and south of the bay would enjoy fishing from the pier. He said another location would be possible. Knauer pointed out that not everyone can afford to pay to go out on a charter fishing boat.
Jack Slattery spoke in opposition to the pier proposal, complaining that, with the pier, the public would be “stuck with no Grayton Beach State Park anymore.”
Bob Brooke urged for a look at financials with the proposal, warning that Walton County would not be likely to get the thousands of tourists coming to the pier that Bay County gets.
Johnny Mall told the BCC that the pier would be an “excellent idea.” Another resident expressed support, as well, saying that, before coming to Walton County 12 years ago, he had lived in a little town with a pier on the gulf—and that the pier had “kept me out of trouble” growing up.
Jacquee Markel came forward to urge the commissioners to consider sponsoring a proposal to replace culverts at five coastal dune lakes with bridges in order improve water flow and the health of these unique water bodies. The lakes include Deer Lake, Big Redfish Lake, Little Redfish Lake, Draper Lake, and Alligator Lake.
J.B. Hillard encouraged a partnership between the county and the Choctawhatchee Basin Alliance to address excessive sediment in the bay and to improve the general health of the watershed. He emphasized the importance of partnership efforts.
“Partnership is key,” agreed Pat Blackshear.
County Commission Chairman Kenneth Pridgen observed that many good ideas had been presented and that there was much work to do. He directed staff to schedule more workshops on the topic and to work on “what is viable and what needs to be approved.”
Comander said she and McKee had been meeting with other counties and with representatives of environmental agencies on project proposals. She spoke to the need to get projects on the NRDA list “road ready.” “We’ve got to spend money to make money,” she said.
Information on additional workshops on the NRDA project list will be forthcoming.