DESTIN — A majority of the City Council on Monday agreed that a proposed city resolution on Crab Island regulations should include a prohibition on the distribution/sale of alcohol by island businesses, as well as an eventual ban on the overnight mooring of floating structures at the popular party spot.
Most council members agreed, however, that the resolution will not include a phasing out of all commercial activities at the island.
The gradual and eventually permanent removal of floating businesses, which Councilman Chatham Morgan said have been collectively described by some people as a “floating trailer park,” was part of city staff’s initially proposed resolution to crack down on the island’s commercial activity.
The council plans to consider its revised version of the resolution May 21. Any proposed regulations that are included in Destin’s final resolution will need the approval of the Okaloosa County Commission.
That’s because the submerged island stands within the unincorporated area of the county, not Destin.
There are other jurisdictional levels involved as well: Crab Island is owned by the state and is within the federal boundaries of the Gulf Islands National Seashore.
At Monday’s meeting, Councilman Skip Overdier said he has heard about Crab Island becoming the “wild, wild West” and “out of control” in recent years.
But, “What I see out there at Crab Island is free enterprise,” said Overdier, who was elected to the council in March. “If there wasn’t a need out there, these businesses wouldn’t be out there.”
He called for finding some type of middle ground and having the county regulate the island businesses just like it does for land-based businesses.
Morgan indicated that he’s a strong supporter of halting the overnight mooring of floating structures and vessels at the island. With the County Commission’s approval, such a ban would take effect after a one-year notice is issued to the public.
Owners of the floating businesses have said it would be very difficult and unsafe to have to move their large, heavy structures every night, rather than having them anchored down against any storms. If the ban on overnight mooring takes effect, some of the structures’ owners likely would go out of business.
That’s because in February 2017, the council approved an ordinance that prevents the anchoring of floating structures in most parts of Destin Harbor and other city waterways.
The floating businesses spoil the view of motorists crossing the Marler Bridge on the west end of Destin, Morgan said on Monday.
“The good news for the Crab Island business owners is … I think the county is going to be more moderate than I am on this issue” of regulating the island’s commercial activities, he said.
Most other council members, however, agreed with Councilwoman Prebble Ramswell that the city’s resolution should not include a phasing out of commercial activities at the island over the next two to four years.
Councilman Parker Destin said the resolution must include a prohibition on the distribution/sale of alcohol by island businesses.
Morgan pointed out that while the floating businesses don’t have alcohol licenses, “alcohol is coming off of their barges.”
That’s because some of the businesses provide “free” alcohol with the purchase of food. And at least one Crab Island vendor reportedly sells drink mixes and “gives” the accompanying alcohol away to customers.
County Commission Vice Chairman Kelly Windes, whose district includes Destin, has voiced support of banning the distribution/sale of alcohol by the island businesses.
The resolution that the council will consider May 21 and that includes a crackdown on alcohol and an eventual ban on overnight mooring — but no phasing out of commercial activities — was approved with a 4-2 vote.
Morgan and Councilman Rodney Braden cast the two “no” votes. Councilman Tuffy Dixon did not attend Monday’s meeting.
Destin officials estimate that about 1,000 people visit Crab Island every summer day.
“The need for regulating the commercial activity and mooring of floating structures on Crab Island stems from the negative impacts that the increase of these activities has had on the city and surrounding areas,” City Manager Carisse LeJeune said in a memo to the council.
For example, data from the Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office show the number of marine violations such as speeding at Crab Island jumped from 89 in 2016 to 562 last year.
Other “negative impacts,” according to LeJeune, include “disturbance in the family-centered environment of Crab Island and the surrounding areas,” unregulated sale and distribution of alcoholic beverages,, accumulation of trash and waste, navigational hazards to public safety vessels and other types of boats and the inability to relocate floating structures quickly and safely during severe weather.
Last June, a new state law was established that authorizes local government to enact and enforce certain regulations on waters within its jurisdiction. This law gives local authorities their first-ever ability to regulate commercial activities at Crab Island.
Part of the city’s proposed resolution states that “prohibiting commercial activity on Crab Island would not deter tourism but instead would enhance the experience of tourists of a relaxing and peaceful boat excursion in the emerald green waters.”
Before the council deliberated the resolution, it heard from Kevin Brown, who owns the Reef Burger floating business at Crab Island.
“A lot of the news media have been told we don’t have business licenses and don’t pay sales tax,” Brown said. “I want to put (such allegations) to rest.”
He then provided Mayor Gary Jarvis with copies of his supporting documentation.
The council also heard from Samuel Poppell, who owns the Chomp N’ Chill and Crab Island SandBar eateries at the island.
Poppell told the council that he recently helped form the Crab Island Business Association, which is working on a long-term strategy for businesses to stay at the island.
“We want to address some of the safety concerns that we’ve heard about,” Poppell said. “Most of all, we want to be known as a family-friendly environment. What helps businesses is a family crowd.”
Poppell confirmed that the state does not issue alcohol licenses to any businesses at Crab Island. That’s because none of the businesses have a fixed address, Poppell recently told the Daily News.
At Monday’s meeting, Jarvis said he met with members of the Crab Island Business Association before he was elected in March.
“I’m a free enterprise kind of guy,” Jarvis said. “But at the same time, you can’t go all willy-nilly” with businesses at the island. “I think this resolution before us here is non-binding. All we can do is make recommendations to the County Commissioners."
In an April 16 letter to Poppell, Gulf Islands National Seashore Superintendent Dan Brown said that in order for the National Park Service (NPS) to issue permits to an island business, “the applicant must acquire all applicable permits or licenses of state or local government, and must operate in compliance with all applicable state and local laws and regulations.
“This includes the necessary approval for the use of the state’s submerged lands. Existing state authorizations did not anticipate the types of activities that have developed at Crab Island, and efforts are underway to address this,” Brown said.
He added that all of the government entities with jurisdiction at Crab Island are working together to “address shared concerns,” including those of commercial vendors.
“It is our understanding that this will not be accomplished prior to the (current) recreation season,” Brown wrote. “Therefore, for the 2018 season there will be no change in NPS permitting requirements from prior years.”