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Tourism council staff seeks input for improvements in next beach season

The DeFuniak Springs Herald of DeFuniak Springs, Florida

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More lifeguards and fewer or better-managed bonfires were suggested at the Sept. 30 end-of-season pub-He workshop hosted by Walton County Tourist Development Council (TDC) staff.

About 10 people were present at the South Walton Annex for the meeting, which was geared toward bed tax collectors and community members. The aim was to provide information and receive input on beach issues, with the goal of improvements and a better beach experience for the next season.

Brian Kellenberger, TDC director of beach operations, reported on trash collection by TDC personnel from 600 stations along the county's 26 miles of beach. A total of 84,800 bags were collected, equaling 1,850 tons, he told the group. Kellenberger noted that TDC personnel also remove chairs, umbrellas, and other items left on the beach at night in connection with the Leave No Trace program An average of 100 items are removed per night through these efforts, he said.

Kellenberger also noted that the TDC maintains 54 beach and bay accesses and that the maintenance, landscaping and cleaning of the multi-use paths in south Walton County are provided through a combined effort of the TDC, Walton County Public Works, and Valley Crest through a contract with the TDC.

Hunter Meyer of Beach Services, Inc., commented that the beach at the access where he provides services at Pompano Joe's is "turning black" from improperly-managed bonfires. He spoke of one bonfire that actually got out of control. Meyer credited Pompano Joe's for assisting in putting out the blaze.

It was discussed that bonfires are a service that beach vendors provide and that the vendors do so with permits from the South Walton Fire District (SWFD), per code requirements. Requirements include containing the bonfire in a barrel.

A problem was identified with young beachgoers or tourists seeing these bonfires and then thinking they can start their own fire without a permit directly on the beach.

Sammy Sanchez, fire marshal for the SWFD, thanked Meyer for bringing this problem to his attention. He requested that the SWFD be contacted as soon as possible in the event of this kind of problem. Sanchez added that the SWFD was looking at ways to step up enforcement of violations of the county bonfire ordinance.

In additional discussion on bonfires, Sanchez noted that beachfront property owners are able to obtain an annual bonfire permit, eliminating the need to obtain a permit for each bonfire on their property.

Asked if there was a limit on the number of bonfires, Sanchez said not under the current ordinance, although the SWFD tries to discourage one bonfire after another in the same location.

Kellenberger said bonfires would be discussed with the Walton County Board of County Commissioners (BCC) and that changes to the bonfire ordinance would be possible, among which might be eliminating or limiting the number of bonfires at neighborhood beach accesses, which are typically small in width.

South Walton County homeowner Lisa Boushy said she had neighbors who had done bonfires in front of their house for several nights in a row. She complained that wood from those fires is now lying all over the beach in that area.

Boushy suggested that the TDC start a volunteer neighborhood-watch-type organization for the beach to help address this and similar issues.

David Vaughn, beach safety director for the SWFD, commented that there has been some support for this idea. He also offered the assistance of lifeguards in the beach safety program.

Resident Joe Serrato spoke to the need for more lifeguards.

Lifeguards are funded by the TDC through its beach safety program and are provided by the SWFD. They are present at regional beach accesses from mid-March through September.

Jim Bagby, TDC executive director, commented that some properties such as Sandestin, provide their own lifeguards. He suggested that resorts be encouraged to provide their own lifeguards with the TDC funding lifeguard training.

Serrato suggested that properties providing lifeguards be credited for the cost of doing so in reduced bed tax.

Meyer brought up the problem of tents on the beach coming loose and blowing down the beach. He noted that other communities have banned tents on the beach.

A representative of Sandestin Beach Services commented that they mandate that, for safety, tents be put up behind chairs and umbrellas.

Boushy complimented the TDC on the use of the flaps connected with their beach trucks to smooth out tire tracks.

Bagby said TDC crews would continue to implement the Leave No Trace program without the previous tagging procedure. He predicted that this would result in people learning not to leave their "stuff on the beach.

TDC staff, he added, are trying to be more efficient in placing trash bags in places where people will be more likely to use them.

Bagby discussed ongoing negotiations to provide more parking off the beach to allow for shuttling of beach-goers. He spoke in favor of continuing the partnership between Topsail Hill Preserve State Park and the TDC whereby the TDC spent approximately $20,000 to provide for free entry and parking for the public at Topsail during the 2015 beach season.

Boushy termed that program a success and noted that the shuttle transporting people to the beach was very punctual.

Bagby spoke to the need to continue with messages to the public that this program is available throughout the summer.

Another message that Bagby hoped could be conveyed more effectively was that the TDC had spent over $8 million on destination improvements for the year, more than was spent on marketing the area.

He told attendees that TDC staffs goal would be to provide all recommendations for proposed changes related to the 2016 beach season in November to the county commission.

Bagby noted that additional public comments would be welcomed by email or phone. These may be provided to Kellenberger at or Bagby at or by calling (850) 267-1216.

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Original Publication Date: October 8, 2015

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