By DOTTY NIST
After four beachfront property owners targeted construction easement language proposed for the Walton County Hurricane and Storm Damage Reduction (beach nourishment) Project with criticism, a decision on the easement language was put off, and a public meeting was scheduled on the topic of the easements.
The input and decision took place at the Aug. 12 Walton County Board of County Commissioners (BCC) meeting at the South Walton Annex.
The easement language had been on the BCC agenda for consideration, as signed easements from property owners in the 19+-mile-long project area will be required in order for contractors to come onto their property to construct the project. While signing a construction easement is totally voluntary, not agreeing to an easement will likely result in a beachfront owner not getting any sand pumped onto their property as part of the project. If an insufficient number of property owners agree to easements, either sections of the project or possibly the whole project may be judged unfeasible.
Brad Pickel, beach management consultant for Walton County, presented revisions that had been made to the easement language as the result of public and staff input, in the wake of a series of public workshops at which the easement language was discussed. A draft easement had first been presented to the public in December 2013.
Blue Mountain Beach homeowner Sherry Chase was fine with getting no sand through the project, as she feared that sand pumped onshore would undermine plantings that she and her husband had done in the dunes and cover her dune walkover.
“I think you need to just say no to renourishment at this point,” Chase told the commissioners.
Pickel did not respond, but at an Aug. 5 workshop on the project, he had replied to Chase’s expression of concern. He had said that he had visited her property and that there were no plans to place sand in the area of her planted dune.
In addition to the concerns about her property, Chase was worried that the list that was being used to notify owners of the proposed easements and project was outdated and that some would not receive notification. Pickel responded that consultant AGS had been secured to identify all current property owners in the project area. “Yes, it will be an up-to-date list,” he said.
Also speaking at the Aug. 15 BCC meeting was Suzanne Harris of Edgewater Beach Condominium.
“For some of us to sign it, it is going to take some work,” Harris commented, speaking of the easement document. She told the commissioners that before consenting to the easements it would be necessary for the beachfront owners to “come to the point where everybody feels comfortable.”
Beachfront Trail property owner Charles Booth raised other concerns, including potential impacts of the project on the coastal dune lake outfalls. Pickel assured him that these were being addressed and had been part of the state permitting process.
The most criticism of the proposed easements and project in general was leveled by Blue Mountain Beach property owner Emmett Hildreth.
Hildreth told the commissioners that over 90 percent of beachfront property owners oppose easements. He maintained that along with the easements go public beach, parking and beach accesses and that the TDC was already bringing more people to the beaches than could be handled.
“We will no longer be beachfront property owners…Patrick Pilcher will no longer be able to assess us as he has,” Hildreth charged, referring to the county property appraiser.
“In 30 seconds, Mr. Pickel’s sand will be gone,” Hildreth also stated in reference to a hurricane.
“This is the most socialistic redistribution of wealth that you have ever put before this county commission…this absolutely is a taking of private property rights,” Hildreth said of the easement document.
“We’ve been called a lot of things, but socialism is not one of them,” Walton County Commission Chairman Bill Chapman reacted,
There were a number of calls from the beachfront property owners for the BCC to put off action on the easement language and schedule another meeting at which the easements could be discussed further with the property owners.
District 5 Commissioner Cindy Meadows said she would definitely agree to holding the meeting, but she wondered if it would serve any purpose, since Hildreth had indicated that over 90 percent of property owners in the project area oppose an easement. She wondered if the county could ever get the easement language to a point where property owners would agree to sign.
Surprisingly, Hildreth replied that he thought this would be possible.
Meadows’ motion to schedule the meeting for 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. on Sept. 3 at the South Walton Annex was approved unanimously. Also approved as part of the motion was the removal of the paragraph referring to Section 161.141 Florida Statutes from the easement language, as some of the property owners and an attorney in attendance had objected to the inclusion of the paragraph.
The attorney also requested that the county see that a representative of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers attend the meeting.
Information on the project and copies of the proposed easement language may be viewed on the project web site www.protectwaltoncountybeaches.com.
By DOTTY NIST