A plan aimed at streamlining coastal development, while adding to the price tag for builders, will come before the Board of County Commissioners during their next regular meeting.

A plan aimed at streamlining coastal development, while adding to the price tag for builders, will come before the Board of County Commissioners during their next regular meeting.

Commissioners will take up the Habitat Conservation Plan on Feb. 21, with an eye toward approving the document and sending it to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for the final decision.
“We are better off adopting the HCP than not,” county administrator Don Butler told commissioners last week during a workshop. “This restricts you, but allows a person to build a house.

“I don’t think we want the alternative.”

In some respect, commissioners are somewhat boxed in, the HCP evolving from a memorandum of understanding more than five years ago between the county and federal agencies to allow the development of Ovation.

That MOU mandated the county move forward on the HCP.

The HCP aims to provide local control over development, provided the county adheres to guidelines within the document.

The document is based on formulas around habitat, for shorebirds, a beach mouse and several species of turtles, and its taking, or destruction, due to development.

The provisions fall under the general umbrella of the Endangered Species Act.

The document provides for a set amount of habitat that can be lost along the coast, from St. Joe Beach to St. Joseph Peninsula, due to development over a 30-year period.

The state parks, city of Port St. Joe, Windmark and Ovation as well as the Eglin AFB coastal land are not included in the HCP.

Once that amount of habitat is lost, coastal development is considered completed in Gulf County.

Of the 655.62 undeveloped coastal acres, beach, dune and scrub, in the county, the county would expect to impact 98.68 acres, none of it beach and nearly all of it scrub.

That is just over three acres per year over the 30 years, Butler said.

The key provisions of the HCP provide for the county to enforce the provisions of the Endangered Species Act rather than the USFW.

Under the USFW, costs and timelines for permitting would be much higher, in addition to placing the burden on federal agencies.

Permitting by the USFW can take up to two years.

The HCP shifts the burden to the county.

The county intends to implement the program under the HCP using existing personnel.

“The plan has been tailored to Gulf County,” said county attorney Jeremy Novak. “We are trying to implement it with existing resources.”

Butler said the county could not afford to hire an environmental specialist to operate the program; once the plan is approved county staff will perform a cost analysis and bring to commissioners a schedule of fees property owners will pay for permitting.

“It’s going to be a huge change from how we have operated in the past,” said deputy administrator Michael Hammond. “It’s going to be very expensive.

“The cost of building is going to go up.”

The estimates given during the workshop were an increase for coastal building of $5,000-$8,000 for property owners.

Property owners will have to have consultants providing reports on actions on any property, habitat on the property and any proposed taking of habitat by development.

They will need a permit just to clear a lot.

But, as a representative of the USFW said, the county is already performing many of the environmental aspects in the plan, including building heights and restrictions along the coastal construction control line.

The HCP provides “regulatory certainty for everyone” and will be good for “Gulf County, the resources and the administration.”

Dr. Pat Hardman, president of the Coastal Community Association of South Gulf County, said commissioners could “cripple” development along the coast if the HCP is not adopted.

“It’s the economy; this is a necessary evil,” she added.

RESTORE

During the Feb. 21 meeting commissioners will also begin discussion on spending plans for BP fine monies residing in what is known as RESTORE Act Pot 3.

Those dollars are under the direction of a consortium of representatives of the 23 Gulf Coast counties in Florida.

Each county, including Gulf, will receive roughly $12 million spread over 15 years, about $800,000 per year.

The consortium is charged with drafting a statewide plan for spending those dollars, with emphasis on leveraging those dollars into more funding and undertaking large projects, said Warren Yeager, the county’s RESTORE coordinator.

“Our goal is to turn $12 million into $50 million and spend this money wisely,” said Commissioner Ward McDaniel.

The county has tentatively put forward three projects, enhancement of the Port of Port St. Joe, septic-to-sewer projects in Port St. Joe and Wewahitchka, and land acquisition to increase public access to coastal areas.

However, commissioners will need to formalize how to spend the money to make it part of the statewide plan.

Yeager mentioned that a committee had debated projects for funding under the county’s direct allocation, so-called Pot 1 funds, projects that could also be viable alternatives.

But, primarily, a decision will need to be made.

“We are going to have to make a determination of what we want to do with that money,” Yeager said. “It’s a golden opportunity here and it’s been a long drawn-out process.

“I think it’s going to start falling (together) fast.”