The distance between a town hall meeting in January pertaining to T.H. Stone Memorial St. Joseph Peninsula State Park and a second public meeting Tuesday about the park was yawning.
State park officials announced a plan to fill the breach at the peninsula park, rebuild the connecting road that threads through the park and connecting north and south as well as restore dune habitat washed away by Hurricane Michael.
That decision followed the first town hall meeting during which the vast majority of public speakers, all but one, favored leaving the breach alone and crafting a new park footprint around Mother Nature.
But Daniel Alsentzer from the Florida Department of Environmental Division of Parks, said that after considering hundreds of written and public comments and the options presented by the breach at Eagle Harbor, the department arrived at a solution it believes adheres to its mission.
“We sought to arrive at best management practices for this complicated endeavor,” Alsentzer said. “Our two primary charges are conservation and public access.
“We believe (this plan) accomplishes that.”
There was no resounding applause from the public, few of whom chose to speak, many feeling as Dusty May put it, the plan appeared “a done deal.”
May, with BAYSAVERS, expressed disbelief that the public input from the first workshop seemed to have been ignored.
And May was skeptical of the accuracy of a salinity study of St. Joseph Bay.
That study showed that salinity levels in the bay fell after Michael, contrary to what should have happened with the rush of seawater from the breach into the bay, and began to rebound in February.
It is the contention of May and many others who often are on St. Joseph Bay that water quality has improved since the storm opened the breach.
“We wish more real studies of that breach had been done,” May said. “This all got done awful quick and awful quiet.”
Four speakers who did rise represented the U.S. Fish and Wildlife, Audubon and Defender’s of Wildlife and each speaker had issues with the plan.
In questioning the final composition of the rebuilt road and habitat for shorebirds, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife staff members questioned, nicely, the need for action at the breach.
Shorebirds adapt to changes in nature; maybe not so manmade solutions.
Audubon and Defender’s of Wildlife, in slightly different language, protested taking any action on the breach, to close or maintain, before a thorough study of the changed dynamics caused by the breach has been studied.
“The priority should be protecting St. Joseph Bay,” said Kent Wimmer with the Defender’s of Wildlife. “Let nature take its course.”
Alsentzer noted the unique dynamics of the peninsula park, which attracts close to 300,000 visitors a year and has been estimated to have a direct economic impact of $22 million and supports in whole or part some 300 jobs.
The breach, in turn, has cut off a huge portion of the park, miles of nature and hiking trails, acres of environmentally-sensitive habitat and camping areas, including cabins.
The breach, at one time 1,000 feet across and nearly 30 feet deep, also resulted in the destruction of 75 acres of beach, dune and salt marsh, much of which ended up covering valuable sea grass in the bay.
Sand accreting south to north with prevailing currents is filling in and around the breach, which is now about two feet deep, Alsentzer said.
He added that the natural dynamics, the water too shallow, the sea grass beds too fragile and too important, rule out a ferry system needing dockage or a bridge.
He said the majority of public comments the Division of Parks received indicated a desire to restore camping and recreation access to the park.
The state will team with the county on its beach restoration project to close the breach.
That project, expected to begin in August, would have originally covered from the Stump Hole rock revetment to Billy Joe Rish Park.
A new 22-foot wide road within the park would be constructed and ultimately paved, though the asphalt was of concern for Fish and Wildlife; representatives noted the federal park system has moved away from paving roads inside parks.
And, by planting the roots of vegetation such as sea oats, work will begin immediately on restoring the dune structure to the beach area around Eagle Harbor and the breach.