Walton commissioners OK beach safety working group
SANTA ROSA BEACH — The Walton County Board of County Commissioners on Tuesday approved the creation of a beach safety advisory group, a fact-finding body that will report to the commission on potential new ways of addressing beach safety issues.
Comprising at least representatives of the Walton County Sheriff's Office, the South Walton Fire District, the county's Code Compliance and Emergency Management offices and the Walton County Tourist Development Council (TDC), creation of the working group comes as the county recently has seen four drownings in the Gulf of Mexico among visitors, and ongoing issues with people disregarding double-red flag warnings that signal dangerous surf conditions have closed the Gulf's waters.
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"I think there is certainly more we can do" to communicate with visitors regarding safety concerns in the Gulf and to provide lifeguards along the county's beaches, said Jay Tusa, executive director of the TDC, who brought the proposal for the working group to commissioners.
Currently, the TDC provides $1.6 million annually for lifeguard services along many of the county's public beaches and steers $1.2 million annually to the county's Code Compliance department to also provide some beach safety services. That funding comes from revenue from the 5% accommodations tax assessed in the county.
Commissioners provided little guidance Tuesday to Tusa regarding their expectations of the working group, although Commissioner Danny Glidewell suggested that it should look at providing lifeguard services, perhaps in the form of roving lifeguard patrols, on all 26 miles of the county's beaches. The vast majority of the county's beaches are in private hands, which restricts the access of public lifeguards.
Tusa was advised, though, to consider expanding the membership of the working group to include representatives of the businesses that collect the accommodations tax, and also to include full-time residents.
Barbara Morano, a Santa Rosa Beach resident active in local civic affairs, suggested that a working group comprising only county personnel might not be willing to have tough conversations about beach safety issues.
Contending that Code Compliance staff members aren't citing people often enough for beach safety violations, Morano told commissioners, "If there's not a private citizen in this group, I think we're going to be too nice to each other."
Commissioner Mike Barker, who asked that accommodations tax collectors be included in the group, or at least have their views considered, told Tusa, "They have some ideas ... and a lot of help they can provide" along with having a vested interest in ensuring the county's beaches are safe.
"We can certainly have a conversation with them," Tusa told Barker.
And regarding broader public participation, Tusa suggested that public workshops outside of the working group's sessions could be used to gather comment from residents and other interested parties.
In other TDC-related business at Tuesday's meeting, commissioners opted unanimously to postpone a decision on renewing an agreement with Dewberry Engineers Inc. for architectural and engineering design services for a new visitor center.
Previous coverage:Walton County TDC gets go-ahead for new visitor center
Commissioners approved plans for the building in August of last year, but since then two new commissioners have come on board. William "Boots" McCormick, a Freeport native and former Walton County sheriff's deputy, won the Republican primary election and was unchallenged in the Nov. 3 general election to replace District 1 Commissioner Bill Chapman, who opted not to seek re-election.
Barker, another former sheriff's deputy who became the county's first emergency management director, also won his seat in last year's Republican primary and faced no opposition in the Nov. 3 general election to replace District 3 Commissioner Melanie Nipper, who did not seek re-election.
McCormick was absent from Tuesday's meeting, at which Barker aggressively questioned a representative of Dewberry Engineers on the size and cost of the building.
The new facility, covering more than 21,000 square feet and projected to cost between $9 million and $11 million — all funded with tourist-paid bed tax revenue — will be located on two combined tracts at 24604 U.S. Highway 331 South near U.S. Highway 98 just north of Elmore's Landing and South Walton High School. The tracts were purchased at a total cost of $1.7 million, also with bed tax revenue. The new visitor center is slated to replace the aging TDC facility nearby at the intersection of U.S. 98 and U.S. 331.
"That's a lot of money to spend for a building," Barker suggested to the engineer, "and I have some grief with that." Barker was particularly critical of plans to house TDC offices and staff in the building, suggesting that they could be accommodated in less-expensive offices in another location, allowing for the visitor center to be scaled down.
Barker also questioned the need for the interactive exhibits and the koi and turtle pond planned for the new center, suggesting that tourists coming into the county wouldn't necessarily be focused on those niceties.
“They’re going to the beach,” Barker said.
In the end, commissioners opted to postpone a decision on renewing the county's agreement with Dewberry engineers until their May 11 meeting. In the meantime, at commissioners' direction, the Dewberry Engineers representative will meet individually with each of them in advance of the May 11 meeting. The county's current agreement with Dewberry is scheduled to expire on May 24.