By DOTTY NIST
SANTA ROSA BEACH – Recommendations for revision of beach vending rules took up the majority of the Dec. 6 Walton County Tourist Development Council (TDC) meeting, with both vendors and members of the public in attendance to provide input.
The meeting took place at the South Walton Annex.
Brian Kellenberger, beach operations director for the TDC, told the council members that, upon coming on board with TDC staff almost three years ago, he had been tasked with “the elusive target of harmony on the beach.” Last year, he recalled, information on possible changes to vending regulations had been brought before the Walton County Board of County Commissioners (BCC) with the result of the commissioners deciding not to make changes at that time.
Beach vending code revisions had been adopted in 2015, including the 50-percent space allotment for beach vendors at the public beach accesses, with the public still able to use the vendor-allotted space as well.
Post-season workshops were held this year specifically for vendors and also a general public workshop “on all things beach,” Kellenberger noted.
He recalled that recommendations in the wake of the workshops had been presented to the TDC in October, resulting in a directive for those to be taken before the TDC Beach Management Committee before being brought back before the TDC with input from the committee.
Kellenberger presented recommendations following the matter being considered at two Beach Management Committee meetings. Provided in writing were different options, and Kellenberger said staff was not advocating for any option over another.
TDC member Kurt Tape recalled that the TDC Destination Improvement Committee had also made specific recommendations when they had previously looked at vending. It was his opinion that “something needs to be done.”
New District 5 Commissioner/TDC vice chair Tony Anderson countered that complaints received about vending had been few, considering the 3.6 million visitors that the county beaches had gotten for the year. He questioned the need for a great deal of change to vending rules, although acknowledging that some minor changes might be needed. He expressed complete objection to “bidding out” the beaches to vendors, one of the options being considered.
Anderson called for slowing the revision process for the vending rules and getting the vendors involved.
Anderson gave the number of complaints as 90 for the year.
As public comment was taken, Phillip Poundstone, a beach vendor and member of the Beach Management Committee, said he did not feel his input had been reflected in the summary of the committee meetings at which vending was considered. Like Anderson, he emphasized that the number of complaints on vending had been relatively small and urged against broad changes to the vending rules. Poundstone identified “rogue vendors” as the cause of problems, adding, “I think enforcement is the way to go.”
Bob Murphy, a Grayton Beach resident, maintained that the number of official complaints was not reflective of the situation on the beach because most visitors do not know how to file a complaint with the county. He and other speakers suggested making this information available to visitors. Murphy also urged for changes to the vending rules.
Another resident, non-beachfront. agreed, saying that she did not think anyone who had been near a public beach in the county would not know that “there is a problem.”
SeaHighland property owners Maunsel White complained of “the complete takeover of the beach (by vendors) with ghost set-ups” that remain all day without anyone using them. Residents have a problem being able to enjoy the beach, he said, because unless they get there at “the crack of dawn” they are not able to find a spot on the beach due to it being occupied by vendor set-ups. White acknowledged that vendors did comply when he asked them not to set up on the beach in front of his property. (A clause in Walton County code requires property owner permission for vending on the beach south of private property.)
A vendor in attendance maintained that the public has better ability to “win the race to the beach” in the morning because vendors are required to wait until sea turtle beach surveys are concluded and face other restrictions on set up, in contrast with the general public. He reported that the 50-percent area that must be left at public beach accesses for the general public “sits empty.”
Chris Webb, also a beach vendor, called ghost set-ups “a myth.” Vendors would not pay for labor for set-ups that they will not make money on, he told the council members. He added that vendors must explain to their customers why they cannot set up chairs for them on the front row when it is full in the vendor section due to the 50-percent rule at the public beach accesses.
“Beach vending is good for the environment,” Webb said, explaining that it results in less beach equipment being bought from discount stores and thrown away by beachgoers.
Non-beachfront resident Donna Johns spoke of numerous complaints online about beach vending. She told the council members that there are some great vendors but that there are definitely problems with vending.
People should be able to take their own chair to the beach, she said, and vendors should not move chairs put up by the public.
It was her opinion that empty space on the beach due to the 50-percent rule was “fabulous.” Johns told the council members that there had not been a vending audit since 2011 and suggested that one be conducted.
Eric Johnson warned that some of the proposed changes would hurt small businesses. He urged for seeing how customary use “pans out” when the customary use ordinance goes into effect before looking at many changes to vending rules. Johnson also commented that the beach is very open to local residents for 80 to 90 percent of the year.
Jim Bagby, former TDC director and currently general manager for One Seagrove Place, stated that there had actually been 158 complaints for the year but 90 types of complaints. He charged that officials continue to “kick the can down the road” rather than taking action to solve problems with vending.
Bagby saw one of the proposed revisions as the answer to complaints about ghost sets. This called for requiring vendors to have someone on site so that chairs would remain on the beach only when being used by beachgoers.
Bagby urged for the code clause to remain requiring an upland property owner’s permission for vending to occur adjacent to this property—and also advised that beach code enforcement to be sent “back to the county” rather than continuing to be handled by the TDC.
Anderson called for a look at fines for violation of vending rules to see if they are sufficient to deter violations.
A vendor who is also a disabled veteran requested that the council members consider the health and safety of vendors and their employees. He also noted that customers of the vendors become disgruntled if they do not get their beach equipment quickly.
“We’re here for the tourists, and we’re here to make money,” a gulffront resident and nine-year vendor told the council members.
“We’re talking about 18 weeks,” he emphasized, speaking of the beach season.
He also asked if it made sense to have vendors pull chairs off the beach when people who had rented them left them temporarily.
“The companies have changed.. professionalism has gone up,” he maintained.
“The public does not have equal access to the beach,” Tape said as public comment concluded. He saw having one vendor per access as a better model than the current practice, which provides for a number of vendors to service an access.
Everyone should have access to the beach, otherwise it is unfair to everyone except the people the vendors are renting chairs to, Tape maintained.
After a short break, Anderson addressed a rumor that his children were in the beach vending business. He said this was “not true,” but that they are “golf cart vendors.” He pledged to abstain from voting if any issue pertaining to the latter were to come up.
Kellenberger had provided options for a Public Beach Vendor Management Program, which “could be as simple as a property lease agreement or as complex as a contract for services agreement,” or a combination of two such arrangements.
Rather than voting to approve a specific program, the council members instead voted in favor of some type of beach management program, with additional meetings on the issue to take place and input from vendors and the public to be taken in the process.
The council members also voted to retain the current process for storage of beach vending equipment in the evening at the toe of the dune.
To clear up an ambiguous code provisions that vendor set-ups must be at a “reasonable distance from the water’s edge,” the council members voted to recommend that this be changed to a minimum distance of 15 feet from the water’s edge. Also approved was requirement for a 15-foot clear corridor from the toe of the dune for emergency and maintenance vehicle traverse.
A motion setting a 6’x6’x6′ size limit on tents vended was approved as well.
There was a vote for no change in the code section regarding the requirement for permission of an upland property owner in order for vending to occur.
The council members voted to send the questions of fine and permit amounts for vending operations back to the Beach Management Committee for review and consideration. Also sent to the committee were options related to special events and whether vending permits should be required for special events businesses.
The council members also voted to recommend that use and conduct on the beach requirements for the public be consistent with vendor requirements with regard to tent size, minimum distance from the gulf for beach equipment set-up, and clear corridor at the toe of the dune.
Also at the Dec. 6 meeting, the council members approved a motion to recommend to the BCC that, beginning in 2018, TDC advertising agency Zehnder Communications administer advertising for the TDC’s events marketing grant program. This would be a change from the current procedure of personnel associated with the events placing advertising for the events.
The program currently provides $525,000 per year to reimburse promotional media expenses for over 30 events taking place both in south Walton County and north of the bay.
Advantages noted of having Zehnder administer the advertising included a more uniform appearance of advertising for the destination and added value associated with more buying power, along with the agency’s expertise.
In other action, the council members voted in favor of the TDC funding median maintenance for gateway areas of the U.S. 98 Scenic Corridor.
The funding would be in connection with a partnership program with the county and the state Department of Transportation (DOT), with the program providing a higher level of service for mowing and trash pick-up on medians and roadside along most areas of the scenic corridor.
Cost breakdown provided for the program for the remainder of the year was TDC $31,869, Walton County $69,094, and DOT $15,561.
TDC action items are presented as recommendations at BCC meetings for final consideration.
Newly-printed copies of the TDC’s 201 6 Annual Report were available at the meeting, and TDC Executive Director Jay Tusa announced that the documents were being mailed out to all county residents and businesses.
TDC meetings are held regularly every other month on even months, at 9 a.m. on first Tuesdays at the South Walton Annex. These meetings are open to public attendance and participation.
By DOTTY NIST