By DOTTY NIST
With project design slated to be completed within the next couple of months, the Walton County Tourist Development Council (TDC) hosted a Feb. 4 workshop at the South Walton Annex on what is now termed the Walton County Hurricane and Storm Damage Reduction Project.
This, the second in a series of workshops on the project, was much better attended than the first, with about 30 people present. Judging from the comments, it was apparent that most were beachfront property owners, with at least one attorney representing beachfront owners also in attendance.
The beach nourishment project, now a federal project, proposes to add approximately 3.9 million cubic yards of sand along 18.8 miles of beachfront in Walton County along four beach segments, with sand to be dredged and pumped from offshore through a submerged pipeline. Plans are for the beach to be widened by 75 to 100 feet in the project area. Funding on the $60-65 million project is to be shared by Walton County and the federal government, with Walton County’s share estimated at $40-50 million.
Plans are for the county’ share to be funded through the one-cent portion of the TDC bed tax devoted to beach nourishment, plus a $20-25 million loan to be secured on the basis of that revenue, along with state grant funds being pursued by the county. It is not anticipated that any other local funding such as ad valorem taxes will be required for the project. No start date for project construction is being forecast at this time.
The focus of the Feb. 4 workshop was on the easement documents that beachfront property owners will be asked to sign in order for construction of the project, which will be built partly on private property seaward of structures, to take place. Brad Pickel, beach management consultant for the county, had invited two representatives from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ (USACE) Mobile District to present information and answer questions about the project from the federal perspective.
Two versions of the easement language had been provided to participants at the last workshop on Dec. 3, and copies were also made available at the Feb. 4 session. There were two versions due to an Erosion Control Line previously having been established in part of the project area, the approximately five miles on the west end of the county, where Walton County’s first large-scale beach restoration was completed in 2007.
One of the USACE representatives, Russell Blount, is in the agency’s real estate division. Blount told attendees that the draft easement language was standard for projects of this nature and was what was being recommended for use in Walton County.
Blount explained that owners of beachfront property have “a bundle of rights,” and that what was being requested was for “a couple” of rights from that bundle to be “pulled out” in perpetuity to allow for construction of the project. The easement would set the stage for the first restoration and for subsequent renourishments over a 50-year period.
The easement language states that the grantor (property owner) “does hereby GRANT, BARGAIN, AND CONVEY unto THE WALTON COUNTY BOARD OF COUNTY COMMISSIONERS, and its assigns, a perpetual and assignable easement and right-of-way in, on, over and across all that portions of land lying in the following described real property, lying and being in Walton County…” The language then references an exhibit showing the easement that would be granted, which is described as “seaward of existing habitable structures…”
Blount noted that the easement mirrors the project construction area.
In response to questions and comments, he explained that the easement language calls for the easement to be granted to Walton County rather than the USACE because the United States is legally prohibited from acquiring an interest in the owners’ property.
Some attendees expressed concern due to the easement language’s statement that the easement would include “the right of public use and access.” However, the language later states that it reserves landowners’ “rights and privileges as may be used and enjoyed without interfering with the use of the project for the purpose authorized…”
Some saw the two statements as conflicting. “You are changing (my property) from being private property,” Sharon Higgins charged. An attorney in attendance also stated that his clients would not “convey their property for the public uses.”
Beachfront property owner Leonard Anderson asked Pickel to clarify would the result would be if the beaches were not nourished. “There will be damage,” Pickel responded.
USACE representative David Newell commented that the easement is “just an instrument” to allow for construction of the project. “It’s not for any other construction; it’s for beach nourishment,” Blount added.
The attorney asked whether the project would be undermined if sand were not placed in a continuous line. The USACE representatives indicated that nourishment done in short stretches would not result in a structurally sound project. “Any project we construct will be structurally sound,” Newell stated.
It was discussed that, in the county’s previous beach nourishment project, three adjacent property owners had declined to sign easements—and that as a result sand had not been pumped onto their property. There had been concern at the time that a “lake” would form due to those properties being “skipped.” However, rather than this happening, project sand gradually migrated onto the three properties, filling them in and resulting in little difference sandwise between those lots and those bordering them on the east and west.
Several attendees expressed concern that it was Walton County to whom the easement would be granted. “It’s the county commissioners and their hostility to private property rights,” said Blue Mountain Beach property owner Emmett Hildreth.
“We are from Alabama, and we understand distrust of government,” Newell responded. He told attendees that his perspective was from the planning and design standpoint, and that he hoped to have the engineering layout for the project completed in two to three months, with completion of plans scheduled for 2015.
Both Pickel and the USACE representatives emphasized that the easement draft was “just a template” that could be modified in response to property owners’ concerns. Pickel encouraged them and their attorneys to provide input on what they would like to see in the document.
Blount added that, as long as right of access for construction of the project were provided, “our district will be fine.”
However, Pickel noted that some residents would be speaking out in favor of public access to the beach.
One beachfront owner responded that most beachfront owners he knew did not try to restrict people coming onto the beach in front of their homes. His concern was more with the project and easement area and how long the access it provided for would continue.
Fort Panic beachfront property owner Ed Goodwin spoke in favor of the county setting up a recreational trust enabling the public to utilize the beach in front of his and other owners’ property while preserving their private property rights.
The question was posed what would happen with geotextiles that had been placed on the beach by property owners. Pickel responded that they would be buried by sand pumped onshore for the project.
Looking at a drawing provided showing examples of easement locations, one attendee with property in Inlet Beach was concerned that a project built as indicated could block the view of the beach from his home, which had been constructed many years ago quite close to the water. Pickel responded that part of the final design would be to check issues such as this and modify the design to see that they were resolved.
Newell added that the goal is to help beachfront property owners and certainly not to devalue their property.
Pickel concluded by emphasizing that $600,000 had been spent to locate “the best sand offshore” as a source of material for the project. “It’s just like our native beach… no contaminants were found,” he said.
Information on the project, along with a form to submit questions and input, is available on the web site www.protectwaltoncountybeaches.com. The easement drafts are displayed on the web site as well. A project update is also available by phone at the toll-free number (855) 745-6402
The public is encouraged to attend the next workshop, which is scheduled for 6 p.m. on April 1 at the South Walton Annex.
By DOTTY NIST