By DOTTY NIST
Construction easements in connection with the Walton County Hurricane and Storm Damage Reduction (beach nourishment) project will not be perpetual, it was announced at an Aug. 5 workshop on the project. This represented a change in the construction easement language.
The public workshop, the fifth of a series, was held at the South Walton Annex. It was led by Jim Bagby, Walton County Tourist Development Council (TDC) director, and Brad Pickel, beach management consultant for Walton County.
In all, six changes to the construction easement language were revealed at the meeting. Approval is to be sought from beachfront property owners for easements to allow project construction on their property.
The easement language originally presented for the project was a standard draft provided by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (ACOE), as this will be a federal project. Pickel explained that there had been five versions of the language since it was first presented in December, with revisions made in response to public and staff input.
Originally the construction easements would have been perpetual, but as the easement language is now written, the easements “will continue until such time as the United States Congress de-authorizes said project.”
The assignment of the easements is also clarified in the new version. The easements are to be issued to the Walton County Board of County Commissioners (BCC) “and its assigns,” per the easement language. Those assigns are now specified and specifically limited to the United States, represented by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Mobile District.
The easement language now also specifies the work authorized, stating that it allows grantees and their assigns to “construct; preserve; patrol; maintain; repair; rehabilitate; and replace erosion control and storm damage reduction measures…including the right to deposit sand; to accomplish any alterations of contours on said land; construct berms and dunes; to nourish and renourish periodically; to move, store and remove equipment;…and to perform any other work necessary and incident to the construction, periodic renourishment, and maintenance of the Walton County, Florida Hurricane and Storm Damage Reduction Project.”
The fourth revision applies to public use, incorporating Florida Statute 161.141 and stating, “said property will be subject to a public easement for traditional uses of the sandy beach consistent with only those uses that would have been allowed prior to the construction of the project.”
The fifth revision defines the project and what it will entail. It is noted that the easement grantee “agrees to construct and maintain the Project as authorized in the Water Resources Reform and Development Act (2014).”
The final revision addresses impact on existing seawalls or other erosion control devices. The language reads, “Grantee agrees not to disturb any existing and permitted major erosion control devices on subject property, such as seawalls, bulkheads, or geo-(textile) systems.”
Recent meetings in the workshop series have typically been well attended and boisterous, and the Aug. 5 workshop was no exception. Judging from comments, most attendees were beachfront property owners and their attorneys.
The revisions announced by Pickel seemed to do little to put owners’ minds at ease with regard to potential impacts on their property rights.
“You’re not getting one from me,” warned Edgewater Condominium resident Suzanne Harris, speaking of the easements. Harris’ fear was that the BCC would approve some sort of measure establishing customary use on the beaches. She said that if the BCC did that and she signed a construction easement, “I’ve just shot myself in the head.”
“All this is… is putting a dune in front of whatever you have there,” Bagby responded. He called the project “an insurance policy” for protection of beachfront property when storms come.
Blue Mountain Beach homeowner Sherry Chase brought up a concern as to whether new seawalls would be allowed by the state in areas included in the project. Bagby responded that possibly new seawall structures would not be permitted, but that they would not be likely to be needed in the project area.
Blue Mountain Beach homeowner Emmett Hildreth disagreed that one of the revisions to the easement language would keep the easements from being perpetual. He said a number of attorneys had told him that if the easement used the words “grant or convey,” that would dictate that the easement must be perpetual. “There’s no person in here that will see the end of this,” Hildreth cautioned.
Bagby encouraged all the property owners to have their attorneys look at the easement language, but he also stated that a number of attorneys with the ACOE had looked at the revised language and had agreed that the easements would be only for the length of the project. Both he and Pickel noted that property owners do not have to sign the easements.
Hildreth continued to protest that the “powers-that-be” want public beach access and parking. “It’s all about the money…it’s not about the quality of life of people who live here,” he complained.
“If the people don’t want this thing, let’s just not have it,” Hildreth continued. He asserted that it would only take a hurricane 30 seconds to wipe out all the sand that would be placed on the beach in the project.
Bagby and Pickel respectfully disagreed on the last point.
“They are spending many millions in the area hit by Hurricane Sandy to do just what we are talking about doing,” Pickel pointed out.
As of press time, the finalized construction easement language was scheduled to be considered by the BCC at its Aug. 12 regular meeting. Upon approval of the language, TDC staff will be tasked with obtaining signed construction easements from beachfront property owners.
Information on the Walton County Hurricane and Storm Reduction Project is available on the web site, www.protectwaltoncountybeaches.com or by calling (855) 745-6402.
By DOTTY NIST