A well-attended meeting last week highlighted a strong opinion from the public about what state park officials should do about the breach in the beach near Eagle Harbor at T.H. Stone Memorial St. Joseph Peninsula State Park.
Leave it be and plan the park’s next phase around the breach.
Reflecting the opinion of the vast majority of those commenting on social media, all but one of the nearly dozen speakers at last week’s public meeting at the Gulf/Franklin campus of Gulf Coast State College expressed a desire for the breach to be left to Mother Nature.
Several speakers, including local boater Don Waits and Dusty May with the organization BAYSAVERS, said the breach provided a “golden opportunity” to enhance what is already one of the state’s most popular parks.
Their paths to that consensus converged from different starting spots.
Waits said with armoring to hold the beach sand in place on either side of the breach, the park, with an island at the northern end, would be even more attractive to visitors.
“Everybody loves to visit an island,” he said, adding that by rehabbing and expanding existing infrastructure, the island would further the park’s mission of providing natural habitat.
Capt. Mark Howze, a charter fisherman, said the breach also saves miles, and fuel and dollars, for charter boats operating out of St. Joseph Bay.
For May, and several others who spoke, the breach is all about the health of St. Joseph Bay.
As with Howze and Waits, May said the bay waters appear to be improving due to the flushing influx of salt water into the ecosystem.
May noted that the bay receives an outsized amount of freshwater discharge through the Gulf County canal, built for the benefit of the St. Joe Company during the operational heyday of the paper mill.
That water, May noted, brings with its thousands of cubic yards of silt from industrial and farming operations to the north; that silt, May said, was being scraped out of many coastal homes in the days after Hurricane Harvey.
May said it is no secret that in recent years there has been significant loss of seagrass beds in the bay; many long-time users of the bay point to the discharges out of the canal.
“We ask what is happening to our bay … it is filling in with silt,” May said.
But the saltwater from the bay provides something of a cleansing solution, working its way south along the park side of the bay and park officials, he argued, should work to maintain the breach.
Speaker after speaker urged the breach to be left alone, with armoring and ferry system or causeway to allow access to the northern tip.
Not every speaker was of similar mind, with resident Danny Clay saying he would like to see the beach restored to allow his family to visit their favorite parts of the park, the campgrounds and nature trails.
And a representative of the Florida Audubon Society urged park officials to carefully plan next steps while aiming to maintain the pristine nature of the peninsula’s tip where many migratory birds, including the snowy plover, make an annual stop.
As Daniel Alsentzer, with the Florida Division of Parks, said, Mother Nature seems already to have an idea about the breach.
Originally, according to one park official, nearly 300 yards wide and 30 feet deep, the breach has significantly filled with sand accreting from the south.
As the county’s coastal engineer has long stated, the currents along the peninsula will naturally carry sand south to north.
The breach, park officials said last week, is now all not navigable by boat.
And, Alsentzer said, the price tag for renovating the park is already estimated at $14 million and that cost is without doing anything to restore the breach.
The park sustained significant damage beyond the Eagle Harbor area, with the two primary campgrounds all but wiped out and trees downed throughout the park.
The state has already spent $300,000 clearing and cleaning the park, which opened on a limited basis last Friday.
Access is limited to the south end of the park and is daytime only.
And there is a push to open the park, which attracts more than a quarter million visitors per year, bringing an economic impact to the area of $21 million, and an estimated 300 jobs, Alsentzer said.
Alsentzer said the Division of Parks has put no plans to paper for the park and last week’s meeting was the first step in soliciting local feedback.
Written comments will be taken until Feb. 1.
Alsentzer added that due to the extent of the damage, a new 10-year unit plan must likely be drafted for the park; the park was in year four of its current unit plan when Michael hit.
He added that has plans are formulated, the agency will return to the public for additional feedback.