By DOTTY NIST
County commissioners recently discussed future needs in connection with beach accesses and beach parking.
District 3 Commissioner Bill Imfeld brought up the topic at the Aug. 12 Walton County Board of County Commissioners (BCC) meeting at the South Walton Annex.
Imfeld noted that the commissioners had received a lot of information at recent meetings regarding parking needs. His conclusion from the information provided was that if the BCC did not take action to address those needs, the county would “fall short” on meeting the needs.
Imfeld asked about the possibility of using Walton County Tourist Development Council (TDC) funds to acquire property and provide this sort of infrastructure.
Walton County Attorney Mark Davis advised that bed tax funds could be used for such projects if they were determined to be principally related to tourism.
Imfeld expressed concern about one potential new beach access that the county is investigating, the one that would cross Topsail Hill Preserve State Park, running from the Beachview Heights subdivision to the park’s beachfront.
At the Sept. 9 BCC regular meeting, the commissioners are scheduled to discuss authorizing TDC Executive Director Jim Bagby to send a letter to the state requesting the development of a memorandum of understanding (MOU) that would set out the duties and responsibilities of the parties in the event of a partnership between the state and the local government for creation of the access through Topsail.
Imfeld’s concern was that the access would primarily serve four neighborhoods with 185 residences, only 28 of which (15 percent) collect bed taxes. He said he would therefore find it difficult to approve the use of TDC funds for such a project.
The potential Topsail Preserve access is considered a neighborhood beach access. Neighborhood beach accesses typically have little or no vehicle parking associated with them, but a number of them do have bicycle racks. These accesses primarily serve surrounding neighborhoods and residents and tourists who are able to walk or bike to the accesses. In contrast, regional beach accesses offer parking areas and restrooms. The TDC maintains nine regional beach accesses in south Walton County and more than 50 beach and bay accesses.
The Topsail beach access is one of six new beach accesses under consideration by the TDC, all of which would be neighborhood beach accesses, a fact that was a concern for Imfeld.
Imfeld expressed a preference for using TDC funds to acquire property for regional accesses with parking and for remote parking areas that could be used by beachgoers who would be transported to regional accesses by shuttle.
Parking areas in the state parks, Imfeld continued, are underutilized. He urged for seeking an agreement with the state whereby the county could “write a check” so that tourists or county residents wanting to go to the beach could have free parking to do so.
Imfeld said he thought the county was “bogging down” with the neighborhood beach access approach, “I would rather see us get away from neighborhood beach accesses,” he said.
Bagby said there had been discussions with the state parks about what had been suggested and that those discussions had been promising. He added that a half-acre parcel across from an existing beach access was available and had been brought to the attention of TDC staff the previous week.”We will pursue that,” Bagby pledged. He added that he had asked bed tax collectors to let TDC staff know of any available parcels south of U.S. 98.
District 5 Commissioner Cindy Meadows was of a different opinion on neighborhood beach accesses, calling them “the way to disperse the three to four million people who visit the beach.”
She commented that the commissioners had seen what had happened after about 20 parking public parking spaces had been added at Beachfront Trail—a flood of complaints from neighboring residents. New parking areas can be problematic because nobody wants parking lots next to their house, Meadows observed.
Neighborhood beach accesses, Meadows noted, allow people to walk and bike and also reduce traffic on the roads. “They get people out and walking,” she said.
“To me, neighborhood beach accesses are part of the solution,” Meadows observed.
Responding to Imfeld’s remarks on the potential access through Topsail, Meadows said the percentage of homes for which bed tax is collected in a vicinity of an access had never been used as a criterion for providing beach access to the public.
She added that another regional beach access would be “great” and that she was sure Bagby would be quick to pursue any such possibility.
Imfeld countered that he thought a percentage of only 15 percent of homes collecting beach taxes was much too low to justify the use of TDC funds for the Topsail access.
Meadows responded that there was still much to be heard on the matter of that potential access and told Imfeld, “obviously you’ve made your decision.”
South Walton County resident Bill Muldowney asked if there was a figure on how much bed tax was generated from the homes rented to tourists in the four neighborhoods around the potential Topsail access. He thought Infeld might be surprised at how much was generated by the 15 percent of homes in those neighborhoods.
Muldowney said he did not disagree with getting new regional beach accesses—and that in fact the county should have been looking at creating additional regional beach accesses in past years. However, Muldowney thought neighborhood beach accesses were “the way to go” now, especially with many residents’ negative attitude toward the county putting in beach parking and accesses in the vicinity of their homes.
“Neighborhood beach accesses have made 30-A an attractive place to come to,” Muldowney concluded.
No action was taken. Additional information on beach accesses will be brought before the BCC at a future date, and the BCC is scheduled to consider at its Sept. 9 meeting a course of action on the letter to request a MOU for the Topsail Preserve beach access.
By DOTTY NIST