There was little mistaking one of the most pressing issues discussed during the recent annual meeting of the Coastal Community Association of Gulf County.
Actually, there was little discussion, only a spate of questions directed at a representative of the Gulf County Sheriff’s Office.
And those questions, at least five of the first six asked, though answers were elusive, focused on enforcement of the county’s Leave No Trace ordinance.
With each question, the answer was the same; the sheriff’s office does not oversee enforcement of Leave No Trace and doesn’t have the manpower to do so.
With just three patrol officers on any 12-hour shift to cover the entire county, the ability to enforce beach cleanliness is out of reach, the representative said.
Maybe it was the arrival of the height of the summer season or a step back along a path that seemed to some to find traction the past two years, but the outcry from some corners concerning the ordinance has increased.
“There is no enforcement and it is getting worse,” said Cape resident Rosalie Tritsch.
An Indian Pass business owner was asked at the CCA meeting about whether visitors were cleaning the beaches along that stretch at night.
They laughed, adding, “They never do.”
Kelli Godwin, Executive Director of the Gulf County Tourist Development Council, said she and her staff could count the number of complaints this summer about Leave No Trace on one hand.
But, she added, “I have seen the pictures” and noted that “we know this is our heaviest time of year (on the beaches).”
And, she said, the photos are taken during the daytime, when items are allowed on the beaches.
Godwin noted that her small staff, particularly the beach patrols and parks crew, have their hands full with servicing the more than two dozen parks in the county and the beaches.
“Our guys are out on the beach, every mile of beach, trying to educate people on Leave No Trace,” Godwin said. “We just haven’t had the staff (for enforcement).”
Additionally, the TDC has not been instructed by county administration to undertake enforcement.
The prior three summers, the county approached Leave No Trace with an education component but no enforcement.
The goal was to ensure the information was out and readily available regarding the provisions of Leave No Trace.
In addition, last year, the Board of County Commissioners placed the discretion of enforcement in the hands of the county administrator.
Once last year, early in the season, TDC was instructed to tag items left on the beach overnight in violation of Leave No Trace.
However, the next step, actually removing the items, was not taken and this year there has been no tagging.
Among the first folks on the beaches each morning May to November, the volunteers with the St. Joseph Peninsula Turtle Patrol, have noticed a difference this year.
“We have seen an increase of stuff left on the beach and it’s sad, we were on a pretty good path,” said Jessica Swindall, volunteer coordinator with the peninsula turtle patrol.
Over the prior two years, Swindall had repeatedly noted an improvement in the cleanliness of the beaches, a plus for nesting turtles that flock to local beaches each year.
She had repeatedly found that the education program, which her team was a part of, was finding some traction.
Now, she said, one violator leads to more.
“It kind of like a snowball effect, people will see one person who has their stuff out and the ordinance isn’t being enforced and they figure why not,” Swindall said.
Another commenter, who wished to remain anonymous out of fear of the impact on their business, said the state of the beach “saddens” them.
“It is still better than Panama City Beach,” they added. “Don’t me wrong, we love the area.
“But it lost a little special with the mess…”