Those of us who have lived on the Florida Panhandle for a long time clearly remember the devastation caused by past hurricanes, including Erin and Opal in 1995, Georges in 1998, Isidore in 2002, Ivan in 2004, and Dennis in 2005. I will never forget when Hurricane Opal sent the Gulf of Mexico washing over Okaloosa Island into the Sound and stranding hundreds of boats on Highway 98 in Fort Walton Beach. The devastation to the Island and our community was shocking. Highway 98 between Destin and Brooks Bridges was washed away. The only means of travel was the Mid-Bay Bridge. Residents were unable to return to their homes on Okaloosa Island because of safety issues. Businesses were disrupted. And tourism, well it ceased as we begun the process of rebuilding.
So what do these historical events have to do with the recent discussions in various news outlets regarding reauthorization by the Okaloosa Board of County Commissioners to allow a 15-year permit required by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) for any beach renourishment project? Everything.
Authorizing this permit now is necessary because we need to be able to address infrastructure issues immediately after a serious storm. The calamity would be not to pursue a permit at this time. As citizens, you would rightly consider County Commissioners to be derelict in our duties if we had not secured this permit ahead of any tropical events. Without this permit, any necessary renourishment projects, even emergency projects, would be delayed many months until the required permits were obtained. We have been blessed not to have a storm for over a decade. But history tells us that we will be hit again someday.
So what exactly does the reauthorization of this U.S. Army Corps of Engineers permit provide to the County? It gives the Board of County Commissioners the ability to conduct beach renourishment, on an as-needed basis, to maintain the beach design template. The reauthorization of this permit does not mean that any beach renourishment is planned or anticipated. The intent of the permit at this time is to make sure we have such permits to allow us to take future action in a timely manner, but only if necessary. ANY renourishment project would require a future affirmative vote of the Board of County Commissioners.
And before any beach restoration were approved, the Board of County Commissioners would consider cumulative impacts including AESTHETICS of sand color and quality, conservation, economics, general environmental concerns, wetlands, historical properties, fish and wildlife values, flood hazards, floodplain values, land use, navigation, shoreline erosion and accretion, recreation, water supply, water quality, energy needs, safety, food and fiber production, mineral needs, and considerations of property ownership.
I stated during our recent BCC meeting that if any renourishment was required due to beach erosion as a result of a storm, that as the Commissioner that represents Okaloosa Island, I would strongly oppose any such project unless the sand placed on our beaches was of equal quality that matched the beauty of our Island. Nothing less!
To that end, the BCC voted to create a citizen board to look at sand to find a match — should restoration ever be seriously considered — that the residents and business owners could agree on. The steps taken by the Board of County Commissioners were proactive and prudent measures to protect the most valuable nature resource in Okaloosa County, our sugar white beaches.
The members of this stakeholders group are as follows: Mike Mitchell, former Okaloosa County Commissioner, and Dave Hancock, who are representatives from the Okaloosa Island Leaseholders Association; Vince Brunner, Esq., and Joe Guidry, who are representatives from the business community; Dave Sherry and Larry Bush, Esq., who are representatives from the Condo Alliance of Okaloosa Island. This stakeholders group will provide feedback and thoughts related to beach renourishment projects for Okaloosa Island to the county’s legal counsel, who will then report back to the Board of County Commissioners at their Board Workshop in April.
This guest column is from Commissioner Carolyn Ketchel, Chairman for the Okaloosa Board of County Commissioners. She can be reached at email@example.com or 850-651-7105.