The 2011 and 2012 spring break seasons were great for the economy, but not so great for residents and law enforcement officials. Tourists crowded local restaurants, shops and rentals. But with the influx of college-aged adults, came underage drinking, rowdy parties and crammed condos.
At a spring-break themed South Walton town hall meeting Tuesday night, it was evident that local officials and residents have had enough.
"2011 was our first big spring break," said Sheriff Mike Adkinson. "2012 was bigger. We had about 500 arrests, primarily underage drinking. We're planning on being very proactive this year, but we can't control the number of visitors."
Concerns about parking, litter and loud music were brought up at the meeting attended by dozens of residents, but all complaints brought the conversation back to booze.
"Do away with beer on the beach and that solves a lot of problems," said Commissioner Cindy Meadows.
The suggestion didn't sit well with one Miramar Beach resident who said, "banning beer is ridiculous."
Instead Meadows and Commissioner Sara Comander are hoping to let spring breakers know that 2013 will be different via social media.
"If we get the word out on Twitter and Facebook that Walton County isn't ‘cool,’ they will tell their friends ‘We can't get snockered, don't go there,’ ” Comander said.
Jay Nettles, general manager of Seascape Resort, said he and his staff are 100 percent on-board to encourage college students to go somewhere else.
"We thought about checking IDs, but almost all of these kids have fake IDs," he said. "We certainly want to discourage behavior of the past. It's a possibility that we may restrict restroom access — which will create another set of problems."
Comander has suggested portable toilets on the beach in the past, which the Department of Environmental Projection rejected.
"It's better than leaving it behind in the Gulf of Mexico," she said.
After dozens of comments and complaints, one resident suggested the county reach out to the younger audience to see how these issues could be settled amicably.
"I don't like this negative attitude toward young people," said Sigrid Sullivan.
Meadows, a resident of Seagrove Beach, admitted there were "good spring breakers," but has seen too many the bad first-hand.
"During spring break, there were three cars in the neighborhood firebombed," she said. "Gangs of young people trashed 30A. There was a lot of property damage and it was expensive to repair."
According to Miramar Beach resident Scott Lade, the respect factor of spring breakers doesn't exist. When March rolls around he said he doesn't even want to leave his home on Miami Street.
"I once walked out to my driveway to find women relieving themselves," Lade said. "I had a lot of fun when I was a kid, but we would go out in the woods and have a bonfire. We didn't bother anybody."
Lade's neighbor, Stephen Hodges spoke up saying the commissioners need to approve tougher regulations.
"You've got to give the sheriff some teeth," he urged both commissioners behind the podium.
Many inside the Seascape conference center agreed that property owners should be more responsible when renting out their units and homes. Meadows pointed out that vacationers frequently lie to property owners about the number of guests.
"They'll say they have four people when they actually have 50," she explained.
Since spring break vacationers are only in town for a few days, it's hard to pinpoint who to blame. Cops could be called to a particular house several times and find different people inhabiting each time.
"We can't go to a house and say, 'By the way, you're getting arrested because of some other yokels,' " Adkinson said.
By putting more pressure on property owners, they'll be more inclined to pay attention, said one 30A resident.
"They usually don't give a rip as to what goes on as long at they get the bucks," she said.
Although Adkinson said he is looking at saturating the beach with officers, there's still thousands of tourists against a small group of people. South Walton Fire Chief Richard Talbert gave some good news stating that a ninth lifeguard tower will be added to the area. Lifeguards, Talbert said, have an excellent relationship with the Sheriff's Office.
For now, spring break is just about two weeks away and no real plan has been set into motion yet. Commissioner Meadows pointed out that in previous years all tourists were given the star treatment.
"In the past, it's been 'Don't bother the tourists, don't write them tickets,' " she said.
That ends now, according to the commissioners. But the county leaders and Adkinson acknowledged there is no quick fix and asked those gathered for patience.
"This is a new problem," Comander said. "We ask you to give us a little grace. We're not perfect."