Okaloosa County Commission discusses possible rule and fee changes for vendors at the county’s public beaches; county might ban commercial activity on islands in Santa Rosa Sound

SHALIMAR — After hearing from more than two dozen coastal-area residents at a workshop Tuesday, four members of the Okaloosa County Commission agreed to potentially ban commercial activities on spoil islands in the Santa Rosa Sound.

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The four commissioners also were open to looking into options on where various types of beach vendors will be allowed to set up on the county’s public beaches, and to a possible new way of setting permit fee rates for beach equipment vendors.

Commissioner Graham Fountain did not attend the workshop.

The potential ban on commercial activities would apply to nine islands in the sound, extending from Spectre Island south of the Hurlburt Field runway to the island south of the Mary Esther Boat Launch at the end of Misty Water Lane.

Last summer, some residents who live on the mainland near the islands complained to county officials about a business that used some island beaches to set up beach chairs, a trampoline, a flamingo-shaped raft and other items for its customers.

The business was Destiny Water Adventures of Fort Walton Beach. Its owner, Kevin O’Neil, said at Tuesday’s workshop that he has staff on personal watercrafts and on land who, per his insurance requirement, monitor his customers at all times and keep things safe.

"I’m a tour company, I’m not a vendor," O’Neil said. "My business, my family, my whole life-savings are at risk here."

But some commissioners said they didn’t want the spoil islands to be overrun with commercial businesses, which is what gradually happened to Crab Island near Destin.

"For me, the overwhelming thing I’ve heard from residents is we have to keep something for the locals," said District 4 Commissioner Trey Goodwin, whose district includes the spoil islands.

He added he would like the islands to be used for things such as Boy Scout camp-outs and family gatherings rather than business endeavors, bringing applause from many people in the nearly-packed commission chamber.

Chairman Kelly Windes agreed on the possible ban, saying, "The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few."

Commissioners on Tuesday also agreed to have staff look further at options on where beach vendors can set up on the county’s beaches, an issue that has caused headaches for many local beachgoers in recent years.

For Tuesday’s discussion, staff had suggested limiting the upland gulf front property owners’ ability to vend to 75% of their front footage, meaning an owner with 100 feet of beach frontage would only be allowed to vend on 75 feet of it.

Vending services would be prohibited in the remaining area, and public use of any area of public beach would be available on a first-come, first-served basis, according to Greg Kisela, outgoing deputy county administrator of operations.

Commissioners were not thrilled with the suggested 75/25 beach-turf division, however.

"Let’s get it straight: These are public beaches," said Ketchel, who added she could support a 50/50 split between vendors and the beachgoers who are not staying in beachfront condos or hotels.

About six or seven beach parcels on Okaloosa Island are private, Kisela noted earlier.

Also on Tuesday, county staff’s suggestion to increase the annual permit fee for beach equipment vendors from $500 to $2,000 raised the ire of various vendors and vendor supporters.

Staff had suggested the hike so the amount of revenue from beach equipment vendor permit fees would better match up with the amount of permit fee revenue from wedding vendors who use county beach accesses.

Several beach equipment vendors at the workshop said the suggested fee hike was far too steep. And Okaloosa Island resident Cynthia Henderson said the increase, if implemented, would be passed on to tourists and decrease tourism.

Kisela said staff will look at setting up a potential fee that consists of a base fee plus a charge that would hinge on the size of the property the vendor works for.

Any changes to existing county ordinances would be decided at a regular commission meeting.

Kisela plans to retire in December, after helping ensure a smooth transition to his recently-hired replacement, former Flagler County Administrator Craig Coffey.

Tuesday was Coffey’s first day on the job.