Monday, October 24, 2011

What's in the water over there?

First gates, now fencing at Bid-A-Wee

PANAMA CITY BEACH — First, locked and controversial gates were installed at Bid-A-Wee Beach access points, just in time to keep out the summer crowd. Now, fencing has gone up in a move that opponents say continues to send the wrong message to visitors, this time to returning snowbirds.

Although the fencing does not look like much, and is only on a few gates, some Bid-A-Wee residents are again reacting with dismay.

Phil Phlegar, a homeowner in the Bid-A-Wee neighborhood who was an early opponent of the first gates, said he wasn’t aware of problems with beach visitors climbing around the gates. He sighed recently and bemoaned “the sense of isolation we are moving toward” and wondered where it would all end.  “I think it altogether sends the wrong message,” Phlegar said. “That beach has been open for 50 or 60 years and now, all of sudden, it’s systematically being closed off.”

Another opponent chided the county for abruptly withdrawing from the earlier controversy, insisting the County Commission still owes the general public continued access.Bid-A-Wee homeowner Robert Cox said county taxpayer funds were used for the 1998 beach renourishment project along that stretch of beach, and the county cannot continue to hide their heads in the sand.

“The board of commissioners has an obligation to the public because they paid for it,” Cox said. “It is just not fair to use local public money and limit local public use.”  The six gates, all with combination locks, were first installed in April, causing a public uproar that reached its peak when vandals dismantled four of the gates and tossed them into the nearby surf and sand.

The gates were reinstalled, but Phlegar said 3-feet-wide sections of linked fencing have now been extended from the sides of several gates in an apparent effort to keep hopeful beachgoers from climbing around.

Both Phlegar and Cox said the Bid-A-Wee Beach Park Inc. (BAWBP) also has future plans to build a ramp and parking lot so association members can drive golf carts down into the dunes, a move that they said would disturb the ecosystem more than the extra beach visitors the fences are designed to bar.  When the gates first went up, BAWBP president Jim Smith said they were meant to help keep the beach clean from litter coming from non-BAWBP vacationers and other unwanted county and city visitors. Smith was unavailable for comment about the fencing.

Phlegar said he also continues to worry that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers may prevent future beach renourishment efforts along that stretch of beach because of the lack of north-south public access, unless of course the county again pays for it.

Cox said Corps assistant district Counsel Joseph Givhan Jr. recently indicated that the
Bid-A-Wee Beach section of the 17-mile 1998 federal renourishment project was unique because county funds were used.  Givhan had sent an earlier opinion to the county that commissioners used as a reason to walk away from the controversy, but Givhan was provided insufficient information, Cox said, something that Givhan confirmed in his most recent letter.

“First of all, let me say that had I understood the nature of the issue instead of just being asked my opinion on an easement, I believe I could have provided an answer that would have clarified the situation better for you and everyone else,” Givhan wrote in a recent e-mail to Cox. “Unfortunately, I was asked to provide an opinion on construction of an easement without the overall context and issue.”  Cox said the Corps required public easements along the rest of the 17-mile 1998 project, but the county failed to do the same at Bid-A-Wee.

“The federal government requires public access to any beach that is renourished using public funds,” he wrote in an e-mail. “The county failed to require the same, although public tax dollars were used to fund the project.”

BAWBP attorney Bob Hughes said he was unaware of the current situation at
Bid-A-Wee Beach and had not talked to the association members since the earlier controversy.