By DOTTY NIST
The program that has been credited with solving the “ghost chair” problem at regional beach accesses in Walton County will soon be expanded—and also used at all neighborhood public beach access areas with 100 feet or more linear feet of beachfront.
On Jan. 26, the Walton County Board of County Commissioners (BCC) made the call to expand the managed beach vendor program in the upcoming beach season. This was at the BCC regular meeting on that date at the South Walton Annex, with the commissioners looking at needed changes to the Walton County Beach Activities Ordinance. This is the ordinance that regulates use of the beach and conduct on the beach and includes rules for beach vending.
The managed beach vendor program had been initiated in 2018 in Walton County at several regional beach accesses. It was later expanded to be used at almost all of the regional beach accesses.
A beach vendor association, the South Walton Beach Service Association (SWBSA), has provided oversight of the managed beach vendor program. The program has provided for any beach vendor with a Walton County vending permit to participate and pick up and drop off equipment rented by the vendor’s clients to be set up for the clients by the SWBSA beach attendant as needed. Participation has included storage of vendors’ beach equipment in SWBSA beach storage boxes when needed. Fees paid by vendors to the SWBSA to fund program oversight have been based on the number of beach equipment sets rented out.
Further expansion of the program was one of the options considered by the officials at the Jan. 26 BCC meeting with regard to beach vending, other options being individual contracts with beach vendors and taking competitive bids for vending at the public beach accesses.
There was discussion on the success of the managed beach vendor program in addressing a major complaint of beachgoers, the chairs known as “ghost chairs” that vendors have made a practice of placing at public beach access areas—chairs that are unoccupied and may block non-chair-renting beachgoers from setting up on the beach.
District 5 Commissioner Tony Anderson observed that complaints to his office regarding the ghost chairs had gone from about 25 a week to “basically zero” after the managed beach vendor program was implemented at the regional beach accesses. He called the proposed expansion of the program to the larger neighborhood beach accesses “a move in the right direction.” Anderson added that the intent had always been to expand the program.
Rich Jaffe, Inlet Beach resident and community leader, also spoke in favor of the expansion, saying that the program “has worked great” where it has been implemented. He drew a comparison with a neighborhood beach accesses with vending, the Wall Street Neighborhood Beach Access, where he said one sees “nothing but blue chairs and nobody sitting in them.” (Wall Street is one of the neighborhood beach accesses where the program is to be brought in.)
After other brief discussion, the officials voted to expand the program to all neighborhood beach accesses with 100 linear feet of beachfront or more and to prohibit vending at the smaller neighborhood beach accesses with fewer than 100 linear feet of beachfront.
Plans are for new regional beach accesses being developed by the Walton County Tourist Development Council (TDC) to be served, as well, by the managed beach vendor program once they are opened. These include the new regional beach access near the Tom Thumb in Seagrove and the new regional beach access in Miramar Beach between Alamo Street and Geronimo Street.
Regional beach accesses currently served by the program include: Inlet Beach, Santa Clara, Van Ness Butler, Blue Mountain Beach, Gulfview Heights, Ed Walline, Fort Panic, Dune Allen, and Scenic Gulf Drive (Miramar Beach).
Neighborhood beach accesses where the managed beach vendor program is to be newly implemented for the upcoming beach season include: Grayton Beach, South Walton Lakeshore Drive, Wall Street, Walton Dunes, One Seagrove Place, and West Allen Loop, along with four areas with adjacent neighborhood beach accesses and uninterrupted beach for public use connecting them, including: the South Dothan, Andalusia, Greenwood and Headland neighborhood beach accesses; the Gardenia, Camellia, Azalea and Holly neighborhood beach accesses, the Hwy 98, Nightcap, Live Oak and Hickory Street neighborhood beach accesses; and the Spooky Lane to Shellseekers Cove neighborhood beach accesses.
The commissioners voted to continue to contract with the SWBSA to manage and staff the program, with a one-year contract to be brought before the BCC at a later date for formal approval and with options to renew for an additional two years.
Also approved by the officials was transfer of supervision of the managed beach vendor program from TDC Beach Operations to Walton County Code Compliance.