By DOTTY NIST
Discussion of a possible new public beach access across the southeastern portion of Topsail Hill Preserve State Park drew the attention of community members at a meeting of the Walton County Tourist Development Council’s (TDC) Destination Improvement Committee.
The committee met on April 9 at the TDC office.
Brian Kellenberger, newly-hired TDC director of beach operations, explained that the access would primarily serve several nearby neighborhoods and that preliminary meetings had been held with representatives of the state park system regarding the access.
Written information provided to the committee stated that the concept “included creation of a new pedestrian entrance and trailhead near the park’s southeast corner and construction of a boardwalk from that point to the park’s beach.”
It was also stated, “Access to the trailhead would be provided via a county easement across the streets and alleyways of the Beachview Heights subdivision. Specifically, access to the trailhead would likely occur along Tanglewood Drive and Sandstone Street.” It was noted that entrance to the park would be restricted to pedestrians only, who would be required to deposit the park entrance fee in an honor box.
Kellenberger told the group that the state park system representatives had indicated that the system was low on funds for projects of this type and that, in order for the access to be prioritized, an alternate funding source would likely be required. This led to discussion of “the idea of cost sharing” between the park system, the TDC, and some community organizations, Kellenberger reported.
He added that the boardwalk under discussion would be an elevated one.
It was discussed that there is an existing trail at the location of the proposed boardwalk, although there is currently a fence across the trail.
The committee and attendees discussed that rules for use of the boardwalk would be different from those for other public accesses since it would be contained in the state park. The written material indicated that a “no pets policy” for the boardwalk area might be considered in order to prevent negative impacts on “imperiled beach mice and shorebirds” in the area.
A resident of one of the neighborhoods in the vicinity of the potential boardwalk spoke strongly in favor of it being pursued.
Calling the access “very much needed,” he spoke of congestion and parking problems at other public beach accesses along the west end of CR-30A. The resident predicted that congestion would not be a problem at the new proposed access because there would be no parking associated with it.
“The beach is too beautiful not to be shared by everyone,” the resident concluded.
Jim Bagby, TDC executive director, clarified that there would be parking racks for bicycles at the access but not for cars.
“I have a huge problem with this,” committee member Jacquee Markel stated. She was in favor of putting in parking for the public if the TDC was going to spend money on the access. Markel also spoke in favor of putting in some parking along the right-of-way at existing neighborhood beach accesses.
Attendee Anita Page questioned why the use of TDC bed tax funds for the access was being discussed when the access would be used only by three neighborhoods.
Bagby responded that not just residents of the three neighborhoods would be able to use the access but others as well, including the schools. He noted that there are short-term rental homes along that section of CR-30A.
Bagby explained that in the recent community survey conducted by the TDC, 73 percent of the respondents rated more public access to the beach as their top priority. He revealed that the TDC has been in discussion with Deer Lake State Park and Grayton Beach State Park on ways to facilitate more public use of those beachfront parks.
Bagby noted that the concept of neighborhood beach accesses is to relieve pressure on the larger regional accesses by providing beach accesses to residents and visitors within half a mile of neighborhoods. The TDC, he explained, maintains 30 beach accesses where there is no parking other than for bicycles.
Bagby said he could understand people’s concerns about the access currently being discussed and the fact that it was being proposed in a state park. However, he observed, it is the TDC’s responsibility to fund and maintain beach accesses.
“We have to bring ideas,” Bagby told the group.
“My concern is where the beach accesses need to be,” Page responded. She observed that the park property had been purchased for habitat conservation. She said she did not think it would be possible to build the boardwalk without negatively impacting the habitat. Page also expressed doubt as to how many tourists would use the boardwalk.
Bagby noted that this would be an elevated boardwalk similar to the one in place at Deer Lake State Park. He commented that if putting in a boardwalk such as the one being proposed were deemed unacceptable, it would logically follow that it would not be possible to add access points in any state park.
Committee member Andy McAlexander expressed concern about using TDC funds to provide beach access for neighborhoods that have not been “sold” as beach neighborhoods.
Committee member Blaine Dargavell was concerned about the precedent that the project would set with the access being constructed across public lands. He could foresee neighborhoods without beach access getting together to pressure the TDC into providing them with beach walkovers. “I think there should be a public parking element,” Dargavell said, predicting that vehicles would be parked in the yards of people living near the walkover.
Bagby responded that the public would see an increase this summer in enforcement of parking regulations by the county.
Attendee Celeste Cobena said she lives near Beachview Heights and that she could “guarantee” that people who would be impacted by this access had “no idea this is going on.” She foresaw people driving to the access and “dumping all their stuff (beach gear) there.” Cobena urged for people whose property would be affected by the access to be invited to discuss the proposal.
“We will have more public meetings,” Bagby responded. He noted that the committee had already been briefed three times on the proposal. Bagby urged attendees to suggest places for additional beach accesses if they knew of any.
Cobena suggested the area south of Stinky’s Fish Camp. “I suggest you all build a boardwalk there. I can see people actually using that,” she said.
Bagby pledged to look into that possibility.
Tim Pauls, a former county commissioner and developer of Topsail Village on the western end of CR-30A, said he had personally walked the trail in the location of the proposed boardwalk and other trails in the vicinity. He called the trail “one of the greatest vistas of Topsail Preserve.” He told the gathering that many meetings would be required in order for the access to be approved.
Bagby observed that hundreds of homes are platted in the area in subdivisions that do not have beach access—and that people moving into those new homes will be looking for access to the beach. “We need to get as much beach access as possible,” he said.
Markel lamented that there “is never money” for beachfront property to be purchased for the public when it comes available. Opportunities for parcels that would provide for beach access and parking are let pass by, and then the attitude is “We can’t afford anything, so let’s go to the state park,” she complained.
“Please embrace what we have and don’t look to this to solve tourist problems,” urged attendee Susan Paladini. She spoke against “nipping off” land purchased for preservation for this purpose.
The committee did not take a vote on the proposal.
The discussion concluded with Bagby urging the committee members to call him or Kellenberger if they had a question about proposal coming before the committee. “The community is counting on you all to provide information… make sure you’ve got the right answer before you put out a wrong answer,” he requested.
Among other items discussed by the committee was the U.S. Corridor Improvement Project, a joint initiative by businesses, utilities, and community organizations, with county participation, with the goal of beautification and enhancement of safety in the area of U.S. 98 from WaterSound Parkway to the Walton-Bay County line and along CR-30A from Winston Lane to U.S. 98. Leigh Moore, a member of the Destination Improvement Committee, is an organizer and spokesperson for the project committee.
Contacted on April 14, Bagby said that discussions on the beach access across Topsail Preserve State Park would continue and that the proposal would come before the committee again, as well as before the full TDC. He noted that the topic of additional beach access along the western end of CR-30A would be placed on the agenda for the first Walton County Board of County Commissioners (BCC) meeting in May. This would include discussion of the proposed boardwalk through the state park and also the suggested beach access across from Stinky’s, he explained.
By DOTTY NIST