With 2017 officially behind us, it's time to look back at the year that was.
It was a year marked by crazy politics and even crazier weather, with a few triumphs and tragedies in between. In no particular order, here are the top 10 Destin stories from 2017:
1. Wild weather: From the warmest February on record (a daily average temperature of 72.9 degrees) to the wettest June ever recorded (15.85 inches of rain fell), Destin certainly saw its fair share of weather events, not to mention a lineup of strong storms that made their mark on the town. A freak storm Feb. 7 brought destructive straight line winds that caused hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage to Destin homes and businesses in a matter of minutes.
Rainmaker Tropical Storm Cindy blew threw the area June 22, and tropical storm-force winds from Hurricane Irma forced a virtual shutdown of the city on Sept. 11. Hurricane Nate forced the cancellation of the Destin Seafood Festival due to its Oct. 7 landfall, bringing with it a storm surge that caused minor flooding in some parts of town and the first shutdown of the Destin Fishing Rodeo since Hurricane Opal in 1995. A brief and rare snow flurry in the early morning hours of Dec. 9 capped off one of Destin’s craziest weather years yet.
2. City parks: In a significant year for new public spaces, four city park projects were added to the Parks and Recreation Department’s development pipeline. In August, city officials issued a final development order to the nonprofit Trust for Public Land to begin work on the landmark $8.7 million Captain Leonard Destin Park at 101 Calhoun Ave. Additionally, as of October, city officials were still waiting to receive $1.2 million worth of RESTORE Act funding that would pay for the planned Capt. Royal Melvin Heritage Park and Plaza at 206 Harbor Blvd., a contentious parcel still at the center of a lawsuit between restaurant owner Dewey Destin and the city of Destin.
Almost $73,000 in RESTORE Act funding was also being sought for updates to storied Clement Taylor Park, located at 131 Calhoun Ave., with upgrades including parking, sidewalks, a fishing pier and a swimming area in the works. And the city purchased the former CEMEX plant at 820 Beach Drive with plans to turn it into a $4.5 million park including walking trails, fishing areas and a kayak launch.
3. Norriego Point stabilization: Destin officials helped break ground in October on the more than $12 million long-awaited Norriego Point stabilization and recreation project. Led by the city and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, the project will restore the point to its pre-1995/Hurricane Opal condition and is scheduled to be completed in the spring of 2019.
In the project’s $9.7 million first phase, which could be substantially completed by May 31, about 5 acres of sand will be dredged from East Pass channel and added to the 7.6-acre point. The first phase also includes the restoration of more than 1,000 linear feet of shoreline and the creation of new swimming areas on the East Pass side.
4. YMCA pool reopens as Destin Aquatics Center: After sitting dormant for nearly three years, the former YMCA pool reopened as the Destin Aquatics Center thanks to the efforts of the Emerald Coast Fitness Foundation. The organization finalized a lease with the Mattie Kelly Arts Foundation in January and began fundraising over $200,000 for the pool, including securing a $55,000 contribution from the city of Destin in March.
The pool finally opened in August and hosts swimming lessons, exercise classes and recreational swimmers. It hopes to begin hosting tournaments in 2018.
5. Second phase of U.S. Highway 98 widening project begins: The Florida Department of Transportation entered the Destin phase of its U.S. Highway 98 widening project in September, having begun the Walton County phase in December 2016 with a 3.3-mile stretch of highway between Emerald Bay and Silver Sands Premium Outlets. The second phase began in Destin in September 2017 with a 3.8-mile stretch of highway from Airport Road to near the Okaloosa-Walton county line. The road is being widened from four to six lanes.
Construction hit a road block after a single-vehicle accident Nov. 16 that killed 25-year-old Jane Bartleson of Fort Walton Beach. Authorities said it appeared her car hit the concrete barrier marking the beginning of construction before flipping over and killing her. FDOT officials said they would be conducting an "official review" of the construction area while they waited for the police investigation to be completed into the exact cause of Bartleson’s accident. Construction has continued.
6. City feud with Gulf Power: Starting in October, the city considered having another company take over the Gulf Power utility system in Destin. Now, Gulf Power reportedly is ready to negotiate a new contract with the city. Destin officials seek lower rates for the customers and want various overhead power lines placed underground. The city entered into a 30-year franchise agreement with Gulf Power in May 1986. After being updated several times, that contract is set to expire in May. There are about 15,600 retail electric customers in Destin.
7. City moves to get rid of the noise: A majority of the city council in October adopted a revised ordinance that calls for an Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office deputy to use the “plainly audible” standard while investigating noise disturbances at all times of day in all parts of the city, save for the South Harbor Mixed Use zoning district that contains HarborWalk Village. Such noise would have to be heard 300 feet or more away from the source in commercial and mixed-use zoning areas and 150 feet or more away from the source in residential areas. The use of a sound level meter will continue to be used to measure noise in the South Harbor Mixed Use zoning district.
8. Boating crashes claim two lives: Two separate boating accidents on Destin waters claimed the lives of a Texas teen and a Niceville man. The first accident occurred June 28 when Sarah Flanagan of League City, Texas, died after a 30-foot boat driven by 76-year-old Johnny Pope of Shalimar collided with the personal watercraft she was operating on Choctawhatchee Bay just north of the Destin Army Recreation Area. Flanagan suffered extensive head injuries and was pronounced dead at Fort Walton Beach Medical Center.
Three weeks later, a Niceville man, 24-year-old Anthony J. Jarab, was killed when a 22-foot Mako center console fishing boat in which he was a passenger, being driven by 34-year-old Jackie C. Mott of Valparaiso, crashed into a channel marker near Crab Island. Two women on the boat — 18-year-old Madison R. William of Niceville and 32-year-old Amber Doolan of Dripping Springs, Texas — were injured in the crash. Both boating incidents are still being investigated by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
9. Number of Destin drownings worry officials: As Destin beaches saw record tourism numbers in 2017, Destin Beach Safety lifeguard officials struggled with limited funding to keep up with demand. Four drownings were reported on Destin beaches in 2017, including a New Year’s Day
A 27-year old construction worker from Houston, Texas, was found floating face-down in the Gulf behind Sea Oats Condominiums on Jan. 1. 49-year-old James Forsythe died April 4 behind a condominium near the Crab Trap restaurant while trying to rescue his daughter and her friend from rough seas. 70-year-old Nori Branch of Rogers, Arkansas, drowned while swimming in the Gulf of Mexico off Henderson Beach State Park on Aug. 4. And 53-year old Charles Farrar of Denium Springs, Louisiana, died after being found unresponsive in the Gulf of Mexico near the Shirah Beach Access off Scenic Highway 98 on Sept. 26.
Destin Beach Safety Chief Joe D’Agostino said that while the national average for drowning rates was about 1 in 18 million, Destin’s was 1 in 400,000, a number he said was “abysmal” and attributed to lack of proper funding for adequate staff and equipment.
10. Air Traffic Control Tower is completed, opens: After several years of planning and anticipation, the airport control tower at the Destin Executive Airport opened for business. The operational opening of the tower came nearly a year after the structure itself was dedicated to retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Leroy J. Manor in a January celebration.
The tower and its equipment came at a price tag of almost $6 million, with the cost being shared almost equally between the airport, the Federal Aviation Administration and the Florida Department of Transportation. The tower’s air traffic controllers are employed by Oklahoma-based Robinson Aviation as part of the FAA-funded “contract tower” program. Initially, they’ll be handling approximately 65,000 “operations” — takeoffs are considered a single operation, as are landings — each year, the current level of traffic at Destin Executive Airport.
Jim Thompson and Tony Judnich contributed to this report.