October 25, 2009 2:49 PM
Kimberly White, Florida Freedom Newspapers
DeFUNIAK SPRINGS — Private vehicles’ access to Walton County beaches is among the sticking points in a draft of a Habitat Conservation Plan.
Fishermen, representatives of the Walton County Coastal Recreation Association and Turtle Watch volunteers voiced their concerns about the draft during a meeting last week. Most of the debate centered on proposed restrictions on vehicles on beaches, particularly on about 1,000 feet of sand in Grayton Beach.
“There’s a lot of anxiety in the community any time there are any changes,” Robert Ernest, president of consulting firm Ecological Associates Inc., said after the meeting. “People get anxious about how it’s going to affect them, and I think it’s pretty evident that the relatively few folks that drive on the beach to launch boats are very concerned about the limitations that the plan might impose on them. They showed up in force and that was good. We got some good input from them.”
The Habitat Conservation Plan is a federal requirement designed to mitigate damage caused by sea walls built after Hurricane Dennis in 2005.The plan aims to protect five federally listed species — three species of sea turtles, the Choctawhatchee beach mouse and the piping plover — while still allowing the public access to beaches.
Among the recommendations in the draft is that burn barrels and bonfires be prohibited during the turtle-nesting period from May 31 to Oct. 31, which coincides with the peak tourist season. Also, beach vendors would not be able to set up in the mornings until hatching and monitoring activities have been completed.
But what upset people the most was planned restrictions on driving on the beach. Private vehicles are allowed on parts of Grayton Beach, Inlet Beach, Seagrove Beach and Walton Park. Billy McKee, the county’s environmental planning manager, said existing regulations allow vehicles on the beach from sunrise until 10 p.m., although anyone who is launching a boat or picking one up is exempt from those hours.
“The (Beach Activities Ordinance) does not address nesting seasons or time of year or any of that, and that’s one of the things that would need to be done for sure,” McKee said.
Under the Habitat Conservation Plan’s draft, driving on the beach generally would be restricted to between 8 a.m. and 7 p.m., or whenever turtle nesting has begun and ended. McKee was optimistic that a compromise could be reached when stakeholders have an opportunity to talk to Sharon Maxwell, the Turtle Watch president.
“People are assuming it’s an us-against-them thing, and I don’t think that’s the case at all,” he said. Johndra Culp, a Turtle Watch volunteer who spoke at the meeting, said later that some residents agreed to come to future Turtle Watch meetings. She said she thought a solution could be reached relatively easily, especially because some people were interested in being trained to monitor turtle nesting. “I think we can reach a win-win situation to where we can both do our jobs and we can help them and they can help us,” she added.