By DOTTY NIST
“We have a project now,” Brad Pickel announced at a recent workshop on Walton County’s planned large-scale beach restoration project, which is now known as the Walton County Hurricane and Storm Damage Reduction Project.
The June 3 meeting, one of six months’ worth of public workshops on the project, was held at the Walton County Tourist Development Council (TDC) conference room.
Pickel serves as beach management consultant for Walton County and is overseeing the project. The basis of his proclamation was the May 22 approval of construction for the project by the U.S. Senate in a 91-7 vote. The project construction was approved as part of the 2014 Water Resources and Development Act (WRRDA). Earlier in the week, the WRRDA had been approved in the House of Representatives by a 412-4 vote.
Pickel told attendees at the workshop that the bill was now awaiting the signature of the president.
The 18.8-mile-long project, Pickel explained, is in the design, engineering and permitting phase, with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Mobile District having submitted a permit application to the state for the project the day of the workshop, according to Pickel’s understanding.
He said requests for additional information (RAIs) from the state were anticipated but that only one round of RAIs would be possible prior to a time clock staring for decision by state officials on the application. Upon that decision, the public hearing process for the project would start, Pickel told attendees.
The notification process for the project, Pickel said, would include nearby property owners, not just beachfront owners.
Responsibility for securing construction easements for the project from beachfront property owners is that of the TDC, Pickel explained, and communication with those owners is to be done by certified mail. Easements are to be granted to Walton County.
The easements will be required for project personnel to access beachfront properties for construction of the project. Pickel noted that language for the easements had first been presented at a public workshop in December. In response to input from property owners, the language was revised. The newest version of the language has been available for viewing on the project web site since May 1, Pickel reported.
Pickel said it would be the Walton County Board of County Commissioners (BCC) who would approve the final language for the easements and say to the TDC, “go get easements.” Upon that finalization, easement packets will go out to property owners, he said.
Pickel displayed graphics of cross-sections for the project, which is to create a 50-foot-wide design berm consisting of 25 feet of beach fill and an additional 25 feet of “advanced nourishment” in all sections of the project. Also included will be a “design added dune feature” to restore the beach from a post-Hurricane Ivan baseline condition.
Pickel provided the current breakdown for funding of the initial project: 28 percent federal ($18 million), 20 percent state ($12 million), and 52 percent local ($30+ million). Plans are for the local portion to be funding through the TDC either from bed taxes or bonding or loans secured through bed taxes as a revenue stream.
With Pickel’s presentation completed, he was asked what would happen if property owners did not sign construction easements.
Pickel revealed that more than 950 of these easements would be sought. He indicated that there would be a “limiting size” for construction of the project. Building sections of less than one mile in length would not be feasible, he noted.
In response to a question, Pickel said any decision on exercising eminent domain would be that of the BCC. No such action has currently been proposed.
Pickel and TDC Executive Director Jim Bagby, who was also present, were peppered with questions from beachfront property owners in attendance about possible impacts of the project on their property rights.
Bagby commented that property owners would continue to retain their current property rights, as stated in the easement language.
One woman expressed concern that a “hot dog stand” might be built on the renourished area south of her home. Pickel reminded residents that nothing of this sort had happened in connection with the county’s first large-scale beach restoration project. Completed in 2007, the project had extended from Topsail Hill State Park to the Walton-Okaloosa County line.
In fact, this type of construction is prohibited by state law on restored beach areas seaward of the erosion control line (ECL). The ECL is set in conjunction with beach nourishment projects in the approximate area of the mean high water line. For property deeded to the mean high water line, the ECL becomes the boundary between privately-owned beachfront property and formerly-submerged state sovereignty lands reclaimed in large-scale beach restoration projects.
Blue Mountain Beach homeowner Emmett Hildreth emphasized that the land “created” by the project would be public land. “It does burden your title,” he told the homeowners. “Sand will not protect you,” Hildreth also asserted.
Suzanne Harris of Edgewater Beach Condominiums complained that Walton County had made the argument that her condominium could not keep a volleyball net on the beach at night because the beach had been nourished there. The conflict, related to the county’s efforts to enforce the Leave No Trace Ordinance, had become the subject of a lawsuit filed by Edgewater. Walton County had later amended its policies to allow large items like volleyball nets and kayaks to stay on the beach at night through a tag/permit arrangement.
Bagby told Harris that he had been in favor of Edgewater having its volleyball net.
“We own our beach…we have our own private beach,” Harris maintained. She was concerned that the county adding more beach south of her condo would result in people from neighboring Shipwatch coming over and setting up in front of Edgewater’s vendors.
“You’ve got to get the wording in the easement right,” Harris told Bagby and Pickel.
One attendee asked “why not just say” that beachfront property owners’ property lines would still extend to the mean high water line after the restoration. Pickel said he would be agreeable but that state law would not allow this.
A Grand Dunes resident expressed concern about fraternity parties that might take place on the restored beach area. He was in favor of saying that no such celebrations could take place there without the permission of the adjoining property owner(s). He said he did not think anyone objected to people walking by along the beach.
Another question posed to Pickel and Bagby was why the construction easements were set up to be perpetual. “We’re going to have long-term erosion,” Bagby responded. The federal project is to include a number of successive beach restorations over a period of 50 years or more, he explained.
Another beachfront property owner, a new resident, said she was afraid she would be giving up control of her property by granting an easement. “I’m happy with my beach the way it is. I’m supposed to trust Walton County? I don’t trust Walton County with my dog!” she exclaimed.
Bagby emphasized that the easements will be granted for purposes of construction of beach nourishment projects only. He said he had argued against the easements being set up as perpetual but that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had remained firm on this detail.
Updated information on the project is available on the project web site, www.protectwaltoncountybeaches.com. The next workshop on the Walton County Hurricane and Storm Damage Reduction Project is scheduled for 6 p.m. on Aug. 5 in the TDC Conference Room.
By DOTTY NIST