Tourist Development Council discusses private beach issue

PUBLIC BEACH IN WALTON COUNTY

By RUBY KEARCE 

The Walton County Tourist Development Council (TDC) met for its regular meeting on Feb. 6. Walton County Tourism Director Matt Algarin approached the council to request the appointment of one of the TDC members to represent the TDC at the tourism department’s annual meeting. This will be the first meeting held since Covid, and an internal committee is currently being built. Amy Wise-Coble volunteered for the position, followed by a motion being passed to appoint her. 

Algarin next reported that visitation, room night, and direct spends are all down, with both visitation and direct spends down by 10 percent and occupancy down by even larger numbers. Algarin explained that although those numbers are down, the number of units available in the area is going up each year. 2021 and 2022 were both strong years, with 2023 experiencing a dip, but compared to the numbers (pre-Covid) in 2019, it has still increased. Alargin also stated that nearly half of the visitors have been to the area more than 10 times. 

A member of staff then approached the council to discuss their work on the GEO located map, and efforts to make a visitor’s time in Walton County easier by giving the location of public beach accesses and state parks, going on to say that one of the goals for this map would be to work with the TDC’s partners to educate visitors that although a beach may be private they may have access to the beach depending on where they are staying. 

Council member (and Walton County Commissioner) Donna Johns asked if the map would be available in time for the upcoming spring break season. John was told that it should be available and that there are various plans for how to educate the community on the map and its uses. 

Attorney Clay Adkinson added that the main goal when starting this project was to create a template for how to market and message beach use rights post customary use, and after reviewing the project, it has been recognized that there are broader and better uses for the map than its current use. Adkinson explained that the current problem being faced is having both the lawyers and developers agree on the language being used. However there are solutions available, but it has been made very clear that they are operating under a defined GIS data set trying to ensure that those areas are as accurate as possible, while also being functional. 

Council member Tim Taylor asked about receiving information on the number of taxpayers that own gulf front property versus the number of taxpayers “on the other side of the street,” and what their average daily rates are. Taylor said “we talk about our average daily rate, the property owners and condominiums that are on the beach are giddy, it’s private so they got what they want, their guest experience is going to be fantastic.” 

The staff member explained that she was unsure how to receive that information, but if someone new comes in to the tax collection office, the office will then give them the TDC’s contact information; however, the TDC is not allowed to contact them, and she will look into collecting more detailed information. 

Taylor said that the TDC needs to be aware of revenue coming from gulf front properties compared to that of the properties not gulf front, saying that he knows the revenue from across the street will be considerably more due to how many more properties there are comparatively. Taylor said that once a family has a bad experience being turned away from a beach access, it is downhill from there. “This is a tragedy that has been allowed to happen.” 

Johns asked Adkinson if there was a way to receive this information. Adkinson informed the council that pursuant to Florida State Statute taxpayer data is confidential. It has been argued for over a decade that there are exceptions to the statute where an agreement can be entered that allows for the TDC’s executive director to receive that information. Adkisnon went on to explain that the position of the past two Clerks of Courts have not been comfortable providing any data that could allow for the identification of bed tax collectors, saying that it makes keeping the information confidential more difficult, although the TDC has agreed that they would act responsibly if any information was leaked. Adkinson said that he agrees with the Clerk of Courts understanding their standpoint. 

Taylor said “The public should be allowed on all dry sand,” and he believes that the efforts with the maps will not be a sufficient solution to the problem. 

Wise-Coble went on to say, “The challenge is here and it’s real,” regarding the private beach issue and the upcoming visitor season. Wise-Coble explained that the TDC needs to do all they can to make visitors’ experiences here as seamless as possible.

  “The outcome is here and the reality is five weeks away.” There was currently no motion needed regarding this issue.