By DOTTY NIST
Jim Bagby recently got the go-ahead to follow through with research on half a dozen locations in south Walton County where new public beach accesses might be a possibility. He estimated that this would be a multi-year process.
“All we’re asking is to continue to research,” the Walton County Tourist Development Council (TDC) executive director told the Walton County Board of County Commissioners (BCC) at its May 13 regular meeting at the South Walton Annex.
Bagby envisioned that all but one of the accesses would be neighborhood accesses. In contrast with the larger regional accesses, neighborhood accesses primarily serve people living in their vicinity and have little or no parking associated with them.
Bagby did not go into detail on any of the potential accesses except one that had been a topic of discussion in the community for at least a few months and was brought before the TDC Destination Improvement Committee at its April 9 meeting. The proposal had encountered both support and opposition from attendees at that meeting and criticism from some of the committee members. No committee vote had been taken.
The potential neighborhood access would be a raised boardwalk that would be constructed in the area of what Bagby called “a well-worn path” across the southeastern portion of Topsail Hill Preserve State Park.
Bagby explained that the access would primarily serve four neighborhoods. It would involve the creation of a new pedestrian-only entrance and trailhead near the park’s southeast corner and construction of a boardwalk from that point to the beachfront area of the park. Access to the trailhead would be provided via a county easement across the streets and alleyways of the Beachview Heights subdivision. Payment of the entry fee for use of the park would be required of boardwalk users on an honor system. There would be no parking for the access.
Bagby estimated the cost of the boardwalk at $250,000 – 350,000 and said that it would likely be funded through cost sharing with the four neighborhoods, which total approximately 400 lots.
Permission from the park service would be a requirement and would involve many public hearings, Bagby explained.
In public comment at the BCC meeting, a resident spoke in favor of the plan. “There’s such a need on the west end of 30A for more beach access,” he said. He noted that in the recent survey of residents conducted by the TDC, a top concern had been the need for more beach accesses. “Let’s just go through the steps,” he urged.
However, a number of speakers went on record against the access through the preserve. Mary Konovsky expressed opposition to the proposal on behalf of the South Walton Community Council, citing concerns about impact on native species and shorebird nesting areas.
A resident living in the vicinity of the proposed access also stated opposition. He pointed out that people buying property in the neighborhood had understood at that time that no beach access existed. “This is going to make a gigantic change in our neighborhood,” he warned. He was also of the opinion that the access was not necessary with the state park entrance being located less than half a mile away.
Another resident was worried that the access would result in large groups of people “spilling into” his neighborhood.
Resident and community leader Celeste Cobena called the plan “just a bad idea.” She argued that Topsail Hill had been purchased by the state to be preserved for future generations, not “consumed and used” so that neighborhoods would have easy access to the beach.
Representing the Coffeen Nature Preserve, which she described as a neighbor and partner of Topsail Hill, Susan Paladini also stated opposition. “It will fragment these natural communities,” she warned of the proposed access.
South Walton County resident Mary Nielson suggested the alternative of approaching the state for public access to another part of Topsail Hill Preserve State Park combined with parking.
South Walton County resident Alan Ficarra observed that materials on the proposed boardwalk showed the width as 10 feet. He expressed concern that people would drive golf carts on the walkover. Bagby clarified that the 10 feet had been a typo and that the width was proposed as eight feet.
With public comment concluded, the BCC voted unanimously to allow Bagby to continue researching the six accesses, which will include writing a letter to the state to inquire about the potential Topsail Hill access.
By DOTTY NIST