Citizens React to Proposed Amendment to Grayton Beach State Park Unit Management Plan

ATTENDEES AT THE DEP open house meeting at Northwest Florida State College Center look at maps of Grayton Beach State Park and the proposed amendment to the park unit management plan and speak with Florida Park Service personnel. (Photo by Dotty Nist)

By DOTTY NIST

Citizens recently had the opportunity to give their input on plans for the addition to Grayton Beach State Park (GBSP) of property on its west end and a proposed day use area at Little Redfish Lake, along with other proposed changes to the previously-approved unit management plan for the park.
Two public meetings were held in Walton County on the proposal on June 13 and June 14, both at the Northwest Florida State College Center in Santa Rosa Beach. The first meeting was in an open-house format, the second a meeting of the Grayton Beach State Park Advisory Group to obtain that group’s comments and recommendations, along with those of other members of the public in attendance.

Grayton Beach State Park currently contains 2,187 acres and is located along the gulf and CR-30A in south Walton County. The park property is located both south and north of the county road. The park has eastern and western units connected in the center by narrower park property, with the western unit featuring rental cabins. The eastern unit features campgrounds, beach access, a boat ramp on Western Lake, canoeing, kayaking, fishing, and other activities.
At the June 13 meeting, Daniel Alsentzer, a planner for the state Department of Environmental Protection’s (DEP) Office of Park Planning, spoke in detail about the park and the proposed amendment to its unit management plan, which had been approved in 2013. Approximately 75 people were in attendance at the meeting.

Park plans are usually updated every 10 years.

Alsentzer explained that the Florida Park Service had received some National Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA) funding in 2016 in connection with settlement of claims related to the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill, and that, as a result, there were plans for projects at eight of the 174 state parks in Florida through this funding.

Proposed for GBSP was the acquisition of seven acres at the dune lake outfall of Little Redfish Lake at the west end of the park property, to be managed as part of GBSP. At 10 acres in size, Little Redfish Lake was described as the smallest of Walton County’s globally rare coastal dune lakes.

A day use area to be located within the western unit of the current park property was proposed along with the seven-acre acquisition at the lake outfall. This would require moving planned tent sites that had been part of the previously-approved park plan to another location in order to put day use area facilities in that location.

Alsentzer indicated that there had been discussion of Walton County funding day use facilities and associated parking.
A conceptual land use plan for the proposed Little Redfish Lake Day Use Area called for “recreational and interpretive access to Little Redfish Lake and the Gulf beach.” The park’s only beach access is currently located two miles east of the new proposed day use area.
Featured as part of the Little Redfish Lake Day Use Area would be a proposed paddling launch on the lake and an observation deck over the lake. According to the proposed plans, a new 24-space parking area to be constructed within the current park property would provide access to the eastern shoreline of Little Redfish Lake by a new boardwalk . The parking area would include a small restroom. A path extending south from the new parking area would connect to the existing beach boardwalk, providing beach access for Little Redfish Day Use Area visitors. Cabin guests would access Little Redfish Lake and the beach boardwalks via a path extending from the cabin area.

As part of the plans, approximately 2.5 acres of current roadway and cleared area within the park would be restored to scrub. It was also noted that the majority of the day use area would use existing cleared area and roadbeds.
The relocated 12-site tent camping area plus bathhouse and associated 24-space parking area would occupy a two-acre site east of the cabins and on the east side of the cabin access road. Tent campers would have access to the Little Redfish Lake Day Use Area by path from the adjacent cabin area.

Alsentzer emphasized that the new day use area would offer new opportunities for beginning paddlers in a smaller lake.
After Alsentzer’s presentation at the June 13 meeting, attendees raised objections that their comments were not taken in a public format. The objections were shut down quickly, and park personnel advised that they would continue to be available to talk with attendees one-on-one. The personnel also provided information on how to proceed with making written and online comments on the proposed amendment. In addition, attendees were invited to attend the advisory group meeting the following day where they would be able to speak.
Attendance was much reduced at the June 14 meeting, but several citizens did attend and speak to the gathering, which included park officials and other DEP personnel.

Celeste Cobena, a south Walton County resident, member of the advisory group, and representative of the local Beach to Bay Connection conservation organization, said, “I recommend denial of this proposed amendment to the unit management plan.”
She explained that, although she would like to see the purchase of the seven-acre property, she did not think that benefit would outweigh the negative impact of the proposed plans on the park. Cobena urged for the proposed new recreational components to be placed in the eastern unit of the park—and for the state to focus on improvements associated with existing paddling opportunities on Western Lake in the eastern unit. In this way, she reasoned, beginner and disabled paddlers would be better served by that than they would be by the park building the proposed long boardwalk for them to access Little Redfish Lake.

Cobena also expressed concern about what she termed “absolutely no control” in connection with the proposal to open up the new day use area and additional access to the beach. “Any number of people can go in there…you’ll get over capacity very soon,” she warned. While there is currently a very peaceful situation for the cabin guests, this could change with the amenities associated with the new day use area and leave cabin guests “in a vulnerable condition,” Cobena told the park officials.
Cobena also brought up potential impacts of putting a dock on this small coastal dune lake and the possibility of invasive plants being brought into the lake on day use guests’ boats.

In summary, she advised for the addition of recreational opportunities in the eastern unit or north of CR-30A rather than in the western unit as proposed. If the property acquisition were tied to the plans for the western unit, Cobena advised for not proceeding with acquiring the property.
Diane Rickman, a member of the advisory group representing the Florida Paddling Trails Association, said her only concern was the 500-foot-long boardwalk that paddlers would have to traverse with their boats to get to the Little Redfish Lake Day Use Area. She added that leaving the path as a trail would actually be easier for paddlers carrying their boats.

Alsentzer responded that a track system for transporting boats along the boardwalk was envisioned.
Bob Murphy, a geologist and a member of the group representing the Grayton Beach Neighborhood Association, said he was “totally for” the purchase of the outfall property and was of the opinion that the outfall should be under state management. However he was also concerned about the paddling aspect. “It’s a small lake, and it’s known to have alligators,” Murphy said of Little Redfish Lake, warning of danger to beginning paddlers if they were to fall over in the lake.

He also wondered if the new public parking, the addition of the new tent camping, and bringing more people in for beach access could impact the quiet enjoyment of the cabins in the western unit. Murphy also brought up the issue of eagles nesting near Little Redfish Lake and warned that, with more traffic with paddlers, monitoring might not be sufficient to mitigate impacts on the birds. Like Cobena, he advised that the recreational component of the project be placed on the eastern side of the park “where the impact is already there.”
Tony Anderson, Walton County District 5 commissioner and a member of the advisory group, said he wanted to clear up rumors that the county and Walton County Tourist Development Council (TDC) had “pushed for” the plans. “We were asked by DEP to partner with them,” he said.

Anderson said it was his understanding that addition of a recreational aspect at the park would be required in order for the funding for purchase of the seven-acre property to be available.
“We have the opportunity to save a beautiful piece of property,” Anderson said, while acknowledging that there would be some impacts. He said he would “hate to see” a developer obtain the property and for it to be turned into something “that none of us want.”
“There is a buildable lot there,” said Jason Cutshaw, TDC director of administration. He said he would like to see the property purchased for addition to the park. He was appreciative of the opportunity to be part of the effort to acquire the property.
“Recreation is not to degrade the conservation of the resource,” said Cynthia Alexander, Grayton Beach resident and advisory board member. “This plan goes out of its way to do that.”
She commented that she fully endorsed the previously-approved 2013 park plan, which does provide for additional recreational opportunities. The plan has not been fully implemented as this time.

Alexander warned that opening up the day use area with the associated additional beach access would result in people “parking everywhere” to go to the beach. She also echoed previous comments about the eagles that hunt and fish in the lake—and that the lake is home to alligators.
Alligators tend to retreat from humans when there is room to do so, Alexander told the group, but there will not be room in the small lake for them to do so. “They will have no place to go, and they will get aggressive,” she warned, adding that Little Redfish Lake is not the place for disabled paddlers.
Walton County’s desire to increase beach access should not be allowed to impact the park plan, Alexander concluded. She emphasized that the western unit of the park is “highly sensitive” and full of endangered plants.
Little Redfish Lake resident Bill Crane, an advisory group member said he did water sampling for the lake on behalf of the Choctawatchee Basin Alliance. He reported that of all Walton County’s coastal dune lake, “it’s the healthiest.”

Crane said that use of the lake and outfall had increased with construction of hundreds of homes in the area, with hundreds of people accessing the outfall and parking on the beach near it. Speaking for himself and for others living on the lake, he identified as most important the preservation of the outfall and allowing it to migrate in the natural and characteristic manner for dune lake outfalls.
Crane said that he had worked toward getting people involved in the potential purchase of the outfall property with the aim of preserving the outfall and keeping Little Redfish Lake healthy.
He echoed concerns expressed by others that it should be ensured that there is not parking “everywhere.” Crane said he would also be concerned if the 24-space parking area associated with the day use area doubled or quadrupled in size in the future. Among his other concerns were debris, invasive plants being brought into the lake, and the possibility of park guests going onto private residential property on the north side of the lake.

In addition to other comments by advisory board members, several citizens in attendance spoke at the meeting. The first of those, Santa Rosa Beach resident Bonnie McQuiston, called acquisition of the outfall “a wonderful idea.” However, she said she wondered why the county was involved with the project. “Is this just another public access for the TDC?” she asked.
McQuiston also pointed out that there are strict prohibitions in Walton County on clearing in the vicinity of the coastal dune lakes. McQuiston, who lives on Alligator Lake, reinforced the warnings of other speakers about danger from the animals and argued against encouraging use of the small lake by “the most vulnerable” of paddlers.
“This new plan to me is wrong,” McQuiston summarized.

Draper Lake resident Barbara Morano agreed that purchase of the outfall was a good idea but complained that bicyclists had been “left out” of the day use area plans. She was not in favor of putting canoes and kayaks in the small lake due to potential negative impacts. “I think we have a workable plan,” she said of the previously-approved 2013 park plan.
South Walton County resident Carolyn Zonia displayed photographs of the eagles nesting in the Little Redfish Lake area. She spoke in favor of the property purchase but against “opening it up” with the day use area as proposed.
Sine Murray, DEP bureau chief for the Office of Park Planning, confirmed Anderson’s previous observation that the NRDA funding being proposed would only be possible for a project combining a recreational component with the land acquisition. She expressed gratitude for Walton County having expressed interest in extending funding for the recreational facilities that would allow the property purchase to move forward.

Cobena said it was her understanding that the recreational amenities could be put in another area than the western unit of the park.
Larry Morgan, a DEP representative in attendance, confirmed that nothing would require the amenities to be place in the western unit. However, he said that there would not be sufficient NRDA funds for the recreational component plus the land acquisition. So, in order for the project to be possible, it would be necessary for the county (or another entity) to fund the recreational improvements, he explained.
Cutshaw said the amount of funding discussed for the county to provide had been $1.3 million. He said that once the recreational component had been decided on by the state, he would research which of the TDC bed tax “pennies” would be possible sources for funding of the improvements.
Jim Reynolds, another DEP representative attending the meeting, commented that this would be the “last of the pre-settlement projects,” and that this part of the funding is only for combination land acquisition and recreation improvement projects. With upcoming post-settlement funding opportunities, there will be multiple categories of projects for funding, he noted.

Alsentzer said all comments would be reviewed and taken into consideration, with revisions possible. The project would require final approval by the state Acquisition and Restoration Council in public hearing in Tallahassee.
Through June 28, the public may continue to submit written comments on the proposed park plan amendment to the Division of Recreation and Parks, Office of Park Planning, by email at [email protected], or by regular mail at the following address: Office of Park Planning, Florida Department of Environmental Protection, Division of Recreation & Parks, 3900 Commonwealth Boulevard, MS 525, Tallahassee, Florida, 32399-3000.