Story and photos by DOTTY NIST
Dozens of residents turned out on Sept. 21 to weigh in on plans for Topsail Hill Preserve State Park.
This was at a workshop held by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), Division of Recreation and Parks at South Walton High School.
Classified as a pre-planning workshop, the meeting was an opportunity for the public to provide input on what should be included in the upcoming update to the unit management plan for Topsail Hill Preserve State Park.
Located near the western end of CR-30A in Santa Rosa Beach, the 1,640-acre park is named for one of its tall dunes resembling a ship’s topsail. It features 3.2 miles of secluded beaches, three coastal dune lakes, and a variety of habitats, including old-growth longleaf pine forests and wetlands. Located close to CR-30A is the park’s Gregory E. Moore RV Resort with its 140 RV sites, 20 tent sites, and 29 bungalows.
Unit management plans for the state parks are regularly updated every 10 years. Eric Pate, a DEP park planner, welcomed attendees to the Sept. 21 workshop and provided an overview of the process for creation of a unit management plan (UMP) update.
He explained that park planning had no proposals “on the table” at this point —but that the purpose of the meeting was to hear from the public about what they would like to see in the plan. Information gathered from the public would be considered by parks staff in drafting the plan, Pate said.
To be drafted are a resource management component and land use component for the UMP. Once those drafts are created, they are to undergo review by DEP and public meetings in Walton County, including one with the official advisory group for Topsail Hill Preserve State Park.
Final steps for the UMP are to be review and approval by the state Acquisition and Restoration Council (ARC), a 10-member group with representatives from four state agencies, four appointees of the Governor, one appointee by the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), and one appointee by the Commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services (DACS).
Once approved, the UMP is to be distributed and serve as a guide for decisions by the Division of Recreation and Parks on land use and the use of natural and cultural resources within the park.
Pate said the division had already received input from over 80 people in connection with the pre-planning process through preliminary surveys and emails. The majority, he commented, had stressed that additional beach access within the park should be limited or minimized.
He said the division was hoping to get as much input as possible from the public within the next couple of weeks.
South Walton County resident Jacquee Markel asked what the time frame would be for the UMP from start to finish. Pate said he would anticipate bringing the draft plan back to Walton County for a workshop in early 2018.
Attendees were encouraged to speak one-on-one with Division of Recreation and Parks personnel, who were present in force. They were also invited to provide input by writing on a number of survey posters and by placing stickers and sticky notes bearing messages on posters and maps.
They were encouraged to comment in written fashion on the importance of increasing beach access and that of increasing protection of the park’s dunes, lakes, and scrub habitat, along with what activities they liked to enjoy in the park, strengths and weaknesses of the park, and threats to the property.
The Herald/Breeze spoke with several workshop participants.
“I believe Topsail is a unique and special place that should remain as natural as possible for future generations,” said Lori Ceier, a Walton County resident and publisher of the online magazine Walton Outdoors.
Ann Perry of the Friends of Topsail Hill Preserve State Park said that the input she had provided was in favor of work on the park entrance to expand its size in order to more easily accommodate larger vehicles, and also to beautify the entrance.
South Walton County resident Susan Paladini commented that Topsail Hill Preserve State Park was acquired for the purpose of conservation with funding from Preservation 2000 program, the forerunner of the current Florida Forever program.
Santa Rosa Beach resident Celeste Cobena commented, “Topsail Hill is a preserve…it was acquired for conservation…whatever plan they come up with cannot damage the resource.”
Cobena recently started a nonprofit organization and website, LetItBeForest.com, in support of maintaining state park and forest lands in south Walton County in keeping with the purposes of conservation and passive recreation. There is also a “Let it be forest” Facebook page in support of these efforts.
In September 2014, after months of discussion, the Walton County Board of County Commissioners had voted not to pursue an agreement with the state that would have provided for a new entrance into Topsail Hill Preserve State Park starting in or near the Beachview Heights subdivision and leading to the beach at the park, utilizing a 1,500+-foot-long elevated boardwalk running through part of the preserve. However, some in the community continue to seek an additional access and boardwalk or boardwalks, as evidenced by some written comments at the workshop.
Pre-planning public comment on the park is being taken through Oct. 5. Citizens may provide input by visiting www.dep.state.fl.us/parks/planning and completing the survey for Topsail Hill Preserve State Park in the table at the bottom of the webpage.
Comments may also be provided by calling (850) 245-3051 or sending an email with the park name in the subject line to FL_StateParkPlanning@dep.state.fl.us, or, alternatively 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.