By DOTTY NIST
“We want the folks to come back; we just don’t want them to tear up our beautiful beaches,” said Walton County District 4 Commissioner Sara Comander.
Comander joined with Walton County District 5 Commissioner Cindy Meadows in hosting a Feb. 27 town hall meeting on county issues, with an emphasis on the upcoming spring break. The meeting location was the Seascape conference center in Miramar Beach.
The meeting was well attended, and, along with county staff, representatives of the Walton County Sheriff’s Office (WCSO) and the South Walton Fire District (SWFD) were present.
Comander emphasized the county’s desire to keep its beaches a family destination.
The commissioners and other officials received thanks for their efforts during the 2013 and were complimented on the results.
“This is a coordinated effort,” Maj. Joe Preston of the WCSO told attendees. Preston admitted that last year’s “sheer number” of spring breakers had not been expected, especially in view of economic conditions.
Preston told the group that the WCSO began to plan for this year’s spring break as soon as last year’s was over. “Rest assured that we’ve beefed up,” he remarked. He extended thanks to the Walton County Board of County Commissioners (BCC) for their help in doing so.
Preston said deputies would again be posted at a small station provided by Seascape.
He explained that the WCSO would be borrowing some of the best practices from other areas that have been studied. He did not want to show the WCSO’s hand by revealing too much about those practices and methods.
“We’re trying to be very creative,” Preston said.
He clarified that the WCSO’s policy would not be zero tolerance but said that they anticipated more arrests this year.
Approximately 1,000 arrests occurred in Walton County during spring break 2013.
Preston said the WCSO also intended to deal with violators in a flexible manner and by “making the punishment fit the crime.” He gave the example of holding driver’s licenses and having violators do immediate community service such as picking up debris in an area.
One question from the audience was on vehicles blocking the roadway. A man said there was already a problem with this in his neighborhood due to construction, and he feared more difficulty with spring break on the way. Preston told him that the WCSO is able to get vehicles towed if they are parked in a way to impede traffic. Citizens experiencing this type of problem are encouraged to call the WCSO.
Meadows commented that addressing issues with public parking are at the top of her priority list. One major goal is to improve enforcement, she said, and another is to provide more on-street parking, she explained, but not in neighborhoods.
A parking study commissioned by the BCC is wrapping up after nine months, and findings and recommendations from the study are now being provided to the commissioners individually, Meadows reported.
Comander said the commission will be proposing to obtain more county land for parking and to have Walton County Code Enforcement write citations for parking violations.
Meadows said public meetings on the parking study and recommendations were planned for April and that citizens would be encouraged to provide their input.
SWFD Fire Chief Rick Talbert commented that fire district’s men and women are encountering the same problems that the citizen had mentioned with vehicles blocking the road—and that they have been seeing this more and more. This type of problem costs first responders valuable time, he pointed out.
“How much does that minute cost us? A lot!” he said.
Talbert said the SWFD has been using the tactic of taking photos of vehicles blocking fire lanes and posting them on social media with the vehicle tag number obscured,
Talbert urged attendees to help the SWFD keep roadways and beach accesses clear and unblocked.
Talbert said people sometimes wonder why they see a ladder truck responding to a medical emergency. When ambulances are busy, the truck closest to the emergency responds, he said, and the people being attended to do not mind what type of truck shows up. Every SWFD vehicle has a paramedic on it, Talbert noted.
On March 8, Talbert told the group, the SWFD will have 40 lifeguards on the beaches. The lifeguard program is now in its ninth year and no drownings have taken place in areas patrolled by the lifeguards, he revealed.
Preston was asked how the WCSO would deal with underage drinking. He responded that the first step would be “destruction of the alcohol,” and that after that the course of action would largely depend on the attitude of the underage drinker. In some cases, the person may be made to do “on-the-spot” community service, he noted. In all cases, the WCSO makes sure that a parent or legal guardian is notified of the violation, Preston said.
In addition, Preston commented, the WCSO plans to place deputies at each beach access to examine coolers—which should also help prevent glass on the beach. Trash bags will be provided for people going to the beach, and if crowds grow to over 3,000 people, deputies will look at shutting down the access and telling beachgoers that they must leave the area.
One attendee thanked the commissioners for their efforts toward getting the traffic light that is now planned for the Geronimo Street/U.S. 98 intersection. He asked them to look into getting a turn lane added at the U.S. 98/Miramar Beach Drive intersection. Meadows pledged to have Walton County Public Works follow up on that request.
Meadows reported that unfortunately her project to get a sidewalk on South Holiday Road had been delayed, partly due to right-of-way width issues. She told the citizens that she would like to see sidewalks on every north-south connector road.
Walton County Public Works Director Wilmer Stafford later commented that design on the South Holiday Road sidewalk was being revised—and that it was anticipated that bids would be sought for the project the following week. He was hopeful of having the sidewalk completed next fall or winter.
Walton County Administrator Larry Jones encouraged citizens to continue to provide their input to the commissioners—and also to tell them when something they have done is appreciated.
Miramar Beach resident and SWFD Commissioner Charlotte Flynt thanked the commissioners for the turn lane improvements that they had recently approved for the Geronimo Street/U.S. 98 intersection and for their work to get the state Department of Transportation to provide the planned traffic signal. Unfortunately, when the current configuration of the intersection was approved, she said, the SWFD was not consulted. This resulted in blocked access for SWFD vehicles departing the fire station on Geronimo Street and has cost as much as six minutes in response time, Flynt said.
Preston was asked about the result of the large number of citations issued last spring on the beach.
Preston responded that the WCSO had participated as one of 17 counties in Operation Dry Spring, which had focused on DUIs, underage drinking and tobacco. Walton County had been number one of those counties in citations, he revealed.
Once the citations are made, the WCSO does not control who is prosecuted, he noted. Most often the violations are disposed of by a fine being paid, he observed, and often parents have the record of their children’s citations expunged.
“This year we anticipate more physical custody than we did last year,” Preston said.
Miramar Beach resident Mike Flynt reported that Walton County Sheriff Mike Adkinson had publicly praised the efforts of the volunteer Sheriff’s Posse earlier in the week and had mentioned the posse’s work in connection with spring break.
“Do you have enough?” Flynt asked Preston, referring to volunteers.
“We can always use more,” Preston responded. He noted that there are “a multitude of volunteer positions” with the posse, including those involving clerical and educational work. “We attract folks from all walks of life,” he said.
Calling the posse “invaluable,” Preston pointed out that Sheriff Adkinson’s posse had received the Presidential Volunteer Service Award from President Obama—and had been the first sheriff’s volunteer group to ever receive this honor in the state.
Preston encouraged anyone interested in volunteering to contact Lt. Danny Garner at (850) 892-8186.
The meeting concluded with thanks to Jay Nettles of Seascape for arranging for the use of the meeting room.
By DOTTY NIST