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County sees best chance to overturn CBRA

Tim Croft

When a Cabinet officer comes to town, well, that is significant news.

And if that visit results in overturning the Coastal Barrier Resources Act (CBRA) designation on roughly 900 acres along Cape San Blas and St. Joseph Peninsula, well, that would end a 20-year slog for the county.

U.S. Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt visited coastal Gulf County last week, joined by Congressman Dr. Neal Dunn (R-Panama City) and aides.

Bernhardt, confirmed by the Senate in April 2019, arrived as part of a swing through Florida to get a “boots on the ground” look at the county’s argument over CBRA.

During his Florida swing, Bernhardt also visited St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge and the Everglades among other spots.

Back to his visit here.

In short strokes, the county has argued for nearly two decades that the CBRA designation was applied to coastal Gulf County in error.

With maps and other documents in a package that has been to Washington, D. C. and back numerous times, the county has contended that there was sufficient development on the Cape and Peninsula that designating the land for protection was erroneous.

CBRA, sponsored by former Florida Senator Bob Graham, aimed to place specific undeveloped coastal areas under protection.

The most significant impact for those living within the CBRA designation is the limits on federal funding, including federal flood insurance.

“We believe we have a path forward,” said Assistant Administrator Warren Yeager, who has testified before Congress on the issue.

“This is the best opportunity we have had to remove 900 acres from CBRA.”

The county was successful prior to the hurricane in removing 40 acres from the CBRA zone.

The key this time around, Yeager said, was the work of former congressman turned lobbyist Steve Southerland.

The momentum since Southerland began pushing the issue in March has been “phenomenal,” Yeager said.

“This was all about personal relationships,” said Administrator Michael Hammond of Southerland’s work within Congress and various agencies such as U.S. Fish and Wildlife.

Hammond added that Bernhardt came across as a “straight shooter” and receptive to the county’s arguments.

The Secretary told county officials he would return to Washington and research this issue and provide an answer in short order.

“If it is true what we told him, which we are sure, he said he would help us,” Hammond said. “If he can’t, he’ll tell us to stop.

“This is our best shot. If we don’t succeed this time, and I think we will, we should move on to another issue.”

Transfer station

During Tuesday’s regular monthly meeting of the Board of County Commissioners, Hammond and Public Works director Mark Cothran provided an update on the progress, or rather lack thereof, on the new transfer station at the Five Points location.

The construction is now more than 160 days behind and the lack of a transfer station is impacting services BCC can offer, most particularly Saturday hours for residents.

Cothran said the contractor has experienced delay after delay, some of which is expected in construction projects, most of which is not.

Hammond suggested the issue was the sub-contractors hired by the contractor.

The decision, Hammond said, was to either fire the contractor and start again or apply some urgency to the contractor.

Hammond said a “come to Jesus” meeting was required, while adding that when finished the transfer station would be user-friendly and a “Cadillac” for residents.

“We are going to bring this to a head one way or another this week,” Hammond said.

Coastal engineer

The county has received its first award out of the so-called Pot 3 of RESTORE funds stemming from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

Pot 3 are funds divided among 23 coastal Florida counties, also called a Consortium.

The county’s ultimate share is more than $12 million over a dozen years.

The first award is for design and permitting for an erosion control project off Cape San Blas.

Commissioners approved seeking qualifications for a coastal engineer; the current engineer, Michael Dombrowski, has been consulting with the county for years and Yeager said it was likely time to seek qualifications from any engineers interested.

Marvin Ave. lots

The county received one bid for two lots on Marvin Ave. originally purchased to provide additional parking for the 10th Street Park.

After a lawsuit halted plans to renovate the ball fields at the park, the county put the lots up for sale.

Local businessman Willie Ramsey purchased both for $66,000, slightly more than the $60,000 the county initially paid for the lots.