Familiar complaints arrive as Okaloosa beaches reopen
DESTIN — Okaloosa County couldn’t really consider itself reopened without complaints being lodged about litter on the beaches and parking problems
It’s been just over a week since Gov. Ron DeSantis allowed the county to embrace a full-blown onslaught of tourists by letting short-term rental properties welcome visitors from just about everywhere.
Since then, a much maligned $10 fee to park at Destin’s HarborWalk Village has been reinstated and complaints have been lodged about illegal parking and the punishments being doled out for it.
Oh, and there are beach issues.
These primarily consist at this time of littering and access to a stretch at the foot of the Marler Bridge that the military has closed off to the public.
The $10 charge to park at HarborWalk Village was initiated in 2018. It raised the hackles of residents and visitors not only because they weren’t used to being charged to occupy spaces there, but also because fee collection backed up traffic onto busy U.S. Highway 98.
Peter Bos, the CEO of Legendary Inc., which owns the lot, at the time defended the decision to assess the fee.
“We were forced into it because our parking lot was filled with people that weren’t spending any money,” Bos said at the time. “When the city and other people started to close their lots and start charging, our lot suddenly filled up with people and the sales of all our merchants went down dramatically.”
The city addressed the traffic issues by making the business collect fees as vehicles exited the HarborWalk parking lot as opposed to entering it.
Neither Bos nor Brittany Byrd, HarborWalk’s director of marketing and events, were available for comment Wednesday.
The city of Destin charges a flat $5 fee to park for 24 hours at lots it owns in the vicinity of its famed harbor.
Free parking is available after hours at the Destin Library after business hours during the week and all day Sunday. Pay to park and permit parking is available at the Destin Community Center, and on Marler and Zerbe Streets, according to the city website.
“Code compliance officers will enforce the ordinance and violators will be ticketed $33 per violation,” the city website said.
It is free to park in the lot of the shopping center anchored by McGuire’s restaurant, but only for those dining at McGuire’s or shopping in the stores.
Illegal parking has become an issue at the Palmetto Plaza shopping center down the street from McGuires, and the center strictly enforces a promise to tow vehicles left after 9 p.m., according to Scott Leach, the owner of Destin Towing.
“People, especially locals, don’t want to pay the $10 to park over at the Emerald Grande, and they don’t want to pay or download the app to pay at the city parking lot,” Leach said. “They don’t seem to realize that if you park on someone else’s property, you’re going to get towed.”
Still, Leach said, he has not towed a single vehicle out of the lot before 9 p.m. in the last five years.
When the commander of Eglin Air Force Base decided earlier this year to close and barricade a beach area beneath the Marler Bridge that is accessed from the west end of the bridge, the rest of the county was closed off too due to COVID-19.
With the reopening of the beaches, the area has grown popular to those who have chosen to ignore the commander’s order and go around the barricades.
Destin City Councilman Parker Destin took to Facebook earlier this week to vent his disgust over the amount of litter that has collected in the area around the military beach area and ask why no garbage cans were present at the off limits access.
“People are litterbugs. They will clean up after themselves only if it is convenient or alcohol is not involved,” he said.
County Commissioner Nathan Boyles said the barricaded beach area has become a public safety hazard as people find places to park nearby and walk along U.S. 98 to access the closed beach.
At a Tourist Development Council meeting held this week, Destin and Boyles, who represent their respective boards on the council, requested that the TDC join with the county in requesting that the entities be allowed to work with Eglin to maintain the beach under the bridge.
The TDC is entitled to spend bed tax money for the maintenance of county beach properties, Boyles said.
Eglin has yet to respond to county offers of assistance in maintaining and perhaps re-opening the beach area, Boyles said.
Base spokesman Mike Spaits did address the concerns noted in Destin’s Facebook post.
“Eglin’s East Pass Beach Area is closed to the public by order of the installation commander, Brig. Gen. Cain,” the emailed response to a question about the post said. “We are also discouraged by the litter left by the illegal parking on the right of way. All the other authorized access points have multiple trash receptacles that are emptied daily in the summertime.”
Concerns have also been raised about the condition of James Lee Park, a county park in the city of Destin that was overrun in the last week and left littered.
“I was not surprised in the least after all the reports of the total disregard for Destin Beaches and access points,” Destin resident Marcie Bell said after sharing photos of the garbage at James Lee Park on Facebook. “James Lee Park in and of itself has been the black eye beach access for Destin’s brand for many years.”
Bell suggested that the county turn the park over to the city of Destin. Boyles said the county would be better off using bed tax money to pay for the maintenance and upkeep of all its beach parks.
“We can use TDC bed taxes to maintain those areas. There should be no limit to what we can do,” he said. If that (a shortage of manpower at James Lee Park) is a problem, it is imminently solvable.“