Vendors and the public participate in Beach Activities Ordinance workshop

By DOTTY NIST

A May 10 Walton County Code Compliance workshop was a chance for beach vendors and the public to get information on proposed changes to the Walton County Beach Activities Ordinance. The meeting also served as a forum for participants to make known what they would like to see in the ordinance.

The workshop, 2 1/2 hours in length, was held at the South Walton Annex and hosted by code compliance staff. It was led by Tony Cornman, Walton County code compliance director.

The Beach Activities Ordinance regulates use of the beach and conduct on the beach and includes rules for beach vending.

Beach chair blockades

For members of the public in attendance, a top issue on their minds was vendor chairs and umbrellas blocking them from walking on the beach along privately-owned property, pushing beach walkers into the water.

“I’m reading, I’m hearing that a lot of citizens are concerned,” south Walton County resident Barbara Morano commented, “that when they walk along the edge of the water, which we’re allowed, beach chairs are actually at the water’s edge on some of the private property.”

“They do block the citizens of Walton County from walking, and it pushes people into the water,” she said of the vendor chair placement.

Under the Florida Constitution, the area seaward of the mean high water line (MHWL) or erosion control line (ECL) is generally held “in trust for all the people” by the state on beachfront property statewide.

“They are in the water, and it’s a barrier for walking,” Lynn Nesmith agreed regarding the chairs.

Often these chairs are unoccupied or “ghost chairs,” as ghost chairs are not disallowed by code other than at public beach accesses operating under the county’s managed beach vendor program.

Sara Day commented that on her visit to the beach the previous day, it had been impossible to walk the beach because of the chairs in the water, on both public and private beachfront. She urged for the problem to be addressed.

Cornman reported that he had been receiving emails showing “a lot of chairs being placed in the water in different spots.”

“I don’t know why anybody wants the chair in the water, but I’ve seen a lot of pictures of chairs in the water,” he said.

At regional and neighborhood public beach accesses owned, leased, dedicated to, or maintained by the county, vendor chairs and umbrellas are required to be placed at a minimum of 15 feet seaward from the toe of the dune or permanent vegetation and at a minimum of 15 feet landward from the water’s edge. On beaches south of privately-owned beachfront property, the requirement has also been to place beach equipment at a minimum of 15 feet from the toe of the dune, etc., but equipment has been allowed to be placed closer than 15 feet landward of the water’s edge.

Cornman discussed that with the proposed revisions it would be clarified that on private beach parcels with vending, vendors would be required to allow, similarly, a minimum of 15 feet from the water to the beach equipment in order to “ensure the beach patrons the ability to traverse the beach unobstructed below the mean high water line”—plus, as before, allow a minimum of 15 feet unobstructed from the toe of the dune, permanent vegetation, or any seawall, whichever is more seaward.

In addition, vendors are required to allow for a 10-foot clear corridor from lifeguard towers to the water and to the toe of the dune, permanent vegetation or seawall.

Vendor Robert Miralles brought up a concern about limited space on the beach, particularly at time of high surf, with the application of the 15 feet from the water plus the 15 feet seaward of the toe of the dune, etc., which he called “absolutely necessary” for safety personnel and lifeguards.

He suggested, instead of the 15-foot corridor from the water’s edge, a requirement to place beach equipment so as not to be impacted by the shore break.

Vendor Dave Meadows was in agreement that beach patrons’ ability to walk along the beach should not be obstructed, but he spoke against the 15 feet corridor from the water’s edge being applied countywide for vendors. He pointed out that in some areas there is barely 30 feet of beach to start with. Meadows commented that taking 30 feet away for vendors could mean not being able to place hundreds of sets on the beach and therefore a significant reduction in revenue.

Santa Rosa Beach resident Kelly Anderson suggested a compromise between what Meadows had requested and the proposed 15-foot corridor from the water’s edge. “Maybe the magic number from the water’s edge isn’t 15 feet;” she said, “most people aren’t that wide.”

Anderson suggested looking at a width of seven to 10 feet for the corridor.

“But you definitely, absolutely, positively need to get those chairs out of the water, and they need to get away from blocking people that are trying to walk down the beach,” she urged.

Heritage Dunes resident Lloyd Paul spoke strongly in favor of the 15-foot corridor from the toe of the dune to allow for basic services—but did not think there was a need for the additional 15-foot corridor at the water’s edge. He noted that the beach is shrinking and said that the additional 15 feet would leave “little or no place” for beachfront property owners to make use of the beach.

In reply, Cornman emphasized that for private parcels the additional corridor would only apply where a beach vending permit is applied for from the county. He also explained that the Walton County Board of County Commissioners (BCC) had previously voted to set aside the 15 feet at the water’s edge to stay unencumbered from vendor set-ups both at the public accesses and on privately-owned property. Cornman said that this had gotten confused due to the way the ordinance had been worded after that decision.

Attendee Michael Knapp urged for the county acquiring more public beach accesses. He also called for a look at a beach renourishment/offshore dredging project to expand the beach to remedy the situation of “wrestling with a 30-foot beach.”

Miranda Graham of the Historic Inlet Beach Neighborhood Association said, “I do agree with the dredging kind of proposal.”

“I think there’s a lot of people that probably would agree with that…we need more beach,” Corrnan said.

Beach bonfires

Revisions are proposed to tighten up rules for beach bonfires, and these were another topic of considerable discussion. County permits are required for bonfires, and these are issued by the South Walton Fire District (SWFD), with SWFD-approved fire containers required.

As proposed, the ordinance would prohibit bonfires within 50 feet of the vegetation line or within 100 feet of a habitable structure. All bonfire containers would be required to be equipped with a steel bottom. Time of day requirements for bonfires are proposed, with bonfire pits not to be placed on the beach before 4 p.m. and fire remnants to be removed by 10:30 p.m. The latter would be a change from the previous 1 a.m.

Remnants from bonfires would be prohibited from being dumped in county garbage collection stations per the proposed revisions. This is an existing prohibition, but ordinance language would be changed from “TDC” (Tourist Development Council) collection stations to county stations for clarity.

There were requests from bonfire vendors for flexibility on the time of day requirements to allow a longer time frame for staging and setting up and removing equipment from the beach.

In reply to a question about how the recommendation for bonfire remnant removal by 10:30 p.m. had come about, Cornman said many complaints had been received this year about bonfire debris being left on the beach, washing up on the beach, or being dumped in the gulf. He noted that Walton County Code Compliance officers in the beach division work until 11:30 p.m., meaning that they are off the beach by around 11 p.m. to clean their ATVs before going home. Cornman said that later than that there is no one to monitor the bonfires.

He brought up the option of adding a night shift for code officers in order to allow for later hours for bonfires, an idea that got mixed response from attendees.

Brian Kellenberger, county beach operation director, asked for strict enforcement and possibly heavier penalties in connection with the prohibition on dumping bonfire remnants in county garbage collection stations. He clarified that he was not saying that instances of these violations were on the part of bonfire vendors and that often the abuses had coincided with special events permits for beach events.

Cornman said the penalties associated with these violations were being proposed to be tightened up with a $500 fine and three-day suspension of the violator’s permit.

While saying that she was a fan of bonfires, Miranda Graham asked for a reduction in the number/density of bonfires occurring at the same time in the interest of air quality. Cornman said such a reduction could be looked into and encouraged contact with the SWFD on the matter.

Bonfire vendors in attendance emphasized that they strive to be responsible and follow the rules. There was discussion on whether many of the abuse instances with bonfires could be associated with members of the public doing bonfires, often without following the guidelines and sometimes without obtaining a bonfire permit.

“I feel like a lot of this could be public that is doing this after your guys are leaving at 10:30…” said Eric Johnson of Miramar Beach Service, “we see it generally happening later.”

Cornman urged for violations of this nature to be reported to code compliance using the complaint link on the county website.

He said that code officers had encountered instances of bonfires being buried on the beach. Johnson said vendors had also discovered this occurring—and that it had definitely not been done by vendors, although taking place on property where “we’re the only ones that can get a permit” for a bonfire. “It’s very dangerous,” he said.

Beach vendor Dave Meadows commented that his company’s bonfires are done at 10 p.m., although vendor employees are on the beach longer while the fire cools down.

Meadows’ opinion was that everything happening after hours related to bonfires “is all public/tourist non-permit holders.” He encouraged a look at a code compliance night shift for after-hours patrol.

Other meeting highlights, final determination on the revisions

Among the proposed ordinance revisions is a limit on commercial bay permits for charter boats using the county boat launch at Cessna Landing Park The limit is proposed at 90 total, with permits to be issued first for existing permit holders who do their yearly renewal by June 15. Cornman said that currently there are 84 such permits.

For dog beach permits, Cornman said the revisions would emphasize a requirement for direct control of dogs on a leash. In response to a question, it was clarified that e-collars would not qualify as direct control as the ordinance is proposed.

The proposed revisions are set to be presented in a public hearing to the Walton County Board of County Commissioners (BCC) on May 28 at the South Walton Annex. A final decision may take place at that time.

The current draft of the revisions may be viewed online at the link: https://tinyurl.com/f499dyv7