Several observations were easily gleaned during last Friday’s public forum on ordinances pertaining to Leave No Trace and RVs.
The forum, hosted by the Coastal Community Association of Gulf County at the St. Joseph Bay Golf Club, provided an opportunity to discuss potential actions by the Board of County Commissioners to either eliminate, or amend, both ordinances.
The first observation was particularly telling: this is not solely a peninsula issues.
Folks from St. Joe Beach, Oak Grove, Port St. Joe and Indian Pass attended.
Second, surveys online and by two rental companies, though hardly scientific, showed a vast majority of respondents, and this was residents and visitors alike, not only supported a Leave No Trace ordinance, but supported enforcement.
Third, there was little in the way of confrontational, “toss them out of office,” protests; frustration and a feeling of not being heard or understood, however, plenty.
There was anger, vented early, but it was not the “I am mad as (heck) and I’m not going to take it anymore” variety.
In part, that echoed sentiments from Dr. Pat Hardman, CCA president, that what would be needed in addressing the BOCC was constructive solutions to a staff recommendation to peel back LNT and eliminates the RV ordinance.
“Every time we complain there are repercussions,” Hardman said.
As was noted repeatedly, both ordinances were the result of several years of lobbying for, and later amending, somewhat controversially, toward approval four years ago.
“So many worked so hard on this to do away with all that with one vote is an insult,” said resident Ron Shaeffer.
And, it was emphasized by several speakers; if the BOCC mood was to assess the ordinances for a more “common sense” approach will also take time and careful consideration.
“There needs to be a strong strategy to change” commissioners’ minds, said Nancy Stuart, a resident of Indian Pass, who crafted an online survey monkey questionnaire on the topic.
The topic, the reason the forum was called, was in response to county staff recommendations last month to strike altogether the RV ordinance and to “redline” or eliminate portions of the LNT ordinance.
Staff has called both ordinances all but unenforceable as written, though enforcement of either has never been implemented by the county, as acknowledged by staff.
County administrator Michael Hammond, who is appointed to his job by commissioners, has come out personally against both ordinances.
“It hasn’t even been tried to be enforced because of some individuals’ bias,” said Steve Womack of Port St. Joe.
Another resident said he had read every word of the ordinance and read nothing that was not enforceable or onerous on beach users.
“We tried to make it as reasonable as possible while addressing the problems we had at the time and that was the trash,” Hardman said.
And while there was progress in the first few years of LNT, during which the county focused on educating the public, visitors and residents alike, a consensus was there was back-tracking this summer, particularly over the past 4-6 weeks.
“It is a good problem to have, people coming down,” said Beacon Hill resident Randy Pridgeon. “We need to control it.”
Several speakers noted that in their research coastal counties around Florida, including neighboring Franklin and Bay, have figured out a way to do just that through a LNT ordinance.
And several more noted that the argument that enforcing LNT will “run off” visitors is belied by the unique environment of Gulf County which attracts visitors to begin with.
Two rental company owners said their visitors overwhelmingly supported the ordinance and enforcement.
Stuart’s online survey, which had received more than 400 responses, found more than 90 percent of property owners urging enforcement and a solid percentage of visitors in support of LNT.
“The majority feel it is important to have leave no trace and to enforce it,” Stuart said of the results.
Hardman said the mere fact that county workers removed some 30 tons of trash from the beaches in the last year illustrates LNT is needed.
While Hammond proposed that portions of LNT that pertain to beach driving, keeping glass off the beach, preventing holes and maintaining a safe beach will remain, he suggested some sections on enforcement be eliminated or rewritten.
County attorney Jeremy Novak, who was present for last week’s forum, said the process begins during an Aug. 22 BOCC public workshop.
The hope, Hardman said, would be to seek a moratorium on any action as several factors converge.
One, the end of the busiest segment of the tourist year is just a few weeks away.
Second, a Florida law passed earlier this year which raised questions about “customary use” of beaches, will likely be addressed in the next legislative session, Pridgeon said.
“A moratorium is the right thing,” said coastal property owner Patrick Foy. “Everybody needs to chill out.”
The hope would be formation of a citizens committee, with members from each beach community included, to examine the ordinance and bring back recommendations.
“I think there is some common ground we can get to,” Hardman said.
The public discussion will continue at 5 p.m. ET Thursday, Aug. 16, at St. Joseph Bay Golf Club. All interested parties are urged to attend.