DESTIN — The submerged party spot known as Crab Island attracts all kinds of people, says Stan Shipp, whose colorful WaterWorld floating business offers fried bologna sandwiches, frozen drinks and other items.
“We get the bottom of the barrel, the rednecks, the upper class — we get everything,” Shipp said May 9 while drinking a beer on the deck of his business. “And they all get along.”
Nearby, Cincinnatians Zak Rosenfeld and Nicole Miller soaked up sun rays, as well as pina coladas from WaterWorld, while lavishing praise on the festive atmosphere.
“It’s our first time” to the island, Miller said while the song “Humpty Dance” blared from speakers. “It’s unique.”
The couple had decided to check out the island after hearing about it on their way to rent a pontoon boat.
“We’ve been coming to Florida for years,” Rosenfeld said. The island “is what differentiates this area from the rest of Florida.”
On May 9, WaterWorld, the Chomp N’ Chill eatery and Crab Island Water Park were the only businesses that were open. Like the calm before a storm, vast sections of water were mostly free of revelers.
About a dozen businesses, along with jam-packed crowds, usually are found at the island during the busiest part of the season from around mid-May through Labor Day.
“We’ve been talking about when we can come back with our kids,” Rosenfeld said. “It’s a great setting for parents and the kids.”
Another first-time island visitor, 30-year-old Ben Bale from Dayton, Ohio, enjoyed a bloody mary while noting that he and his family were staying in the 30A area of South Walton County.
Bale has visited the Destin area just about every year since he was a small boy.
“I think this is a major drawing point for the city of Destin and the overall area,” he said of Crab Island.
To the sorrow of many island visitors and probably each of its vendors, however, local government regulations in the works could deliver a death knell to the party spot’s commercial activities.
Kevin Brown, who owns the Reef Burger floating business, said government officials are going overboard with their proposed rules.
“If they could blame someone drowning from eating one of my hamburgers and weighing them down, they would,” Brown said.
A majority of the Destin City Council supports regulating or possibly prohibiting the distribution of alcohol by Crab Island businesses and eventually banning the overnight mooring of floating structures/vessels at the island.
Since the island is not in the city limits but is within the Okaloosa County’s unincorporated area, the proposed regulations will need the County Commission’s approval. The commission plans to consider the possible rules at its June 19 meeting at the County Administration Building in Shalimar.
With the commission's approval, a crackdown on the distribution alcohol likely would take effect immediately. The ban on overnight mooring could take effect after a one-year notice is issued to the public.
In a recent memo to the council, City Manager Carisse LeJeune wrote that, “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.”
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. Authorities also have seen a spike in the number of distressed swimmers in recent years.
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.
Several island business owners say the proposed regulations would mean an end to their businesses. The ban on overnight mooring would be especially harmful, they said.
“We don’t have anywhere to take them” nearby, business owner Samuel Poppell said recently about the floating structures.
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. Structure owners can park their floating businesses at local commercial marinas with the permission of the marina operators.
Poppell owns two floating businesses: the Chomp N’ Chill eatery and his new Crab Island SandBar. The SandBar, which will have seating for 54 patrons and be the largest business at the island, was receiving some final touches on May 9 before it began serving customers.
During the offseason, he has moored his structures in Fort Walton Beach or Pensacola.
“It takes five to six hours to move each of our structures to the sound,” Poppell said, referring to the Santa Rosa Sound. “That’s on a perfect weather day. If a storm pops up in the afternoon, do we leave it anchored securely or move it and risk damaging it?”
He said during the height of the season, most island businesses operate seven days a week, from about 10 or 11 a.m. to about 4:30 or 5:30 p.m. daily.
Brown was preparing for what would be his sixth season at Crab Island. Like his fellow business owners, he hopes this season isn’t his last.
“They’re not giving me a place to go” overnight during the warmer months, “so I would go out of business” if the overnight mooring ban takes effect, Brown said.
Last winter, he was able to rent a marina spot in Destin to moor his structure.
Shipp had to park his WaterWorld structure at a friend’s dock in Mary Esther for a spell after Destin’s ordinance against mooring such structures in most parts of the city's waterways took effect. He used to park it outside his residence in Destin.
Booze on the island
Poppell, Brown and Shipp recently helped form the eight-member Crab Island Business Association, which aims to find ways to keep businesses at the island open for the long haul.
“Ideally, we’d like to see (local officials) issue a seasonal permit for about six months so we can continue to operate,” Poppell said.
He, Brown and Shipp each were candid when they were asked about alcohol being available at their businesses.
“We give away free alcohol,” Brown said. “Rum and tequila.”
“We only sell virgin daiquiris” while giving away the accompanying alcohol, Poppell noted.
At WaterWorld, alcohol is “available anytime” and doesn’t require the purchase of food, Shipp said.
Poppell has said that while Crab Island business owners have state business licenses, as well as business tax receipts issued by the county Tax Collector’s Office, the state will not issue them alcohol licenses because none of the floating structures have a fixed address.
In any event, customers would “not be happy to find out we cannot serve alcohol,” Shipp said.
Such customers include Karen Brewer, a 45-year-old from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, who has been visiting the Destin area for about two decades.
While enjoying an adult beverage on May 9, she said the city’s attempt to regulate Crab Island businesses “is very unfair.”
Patrons of the establishments “are getting what they want,” said Brewer, who has a condo in Destin. “If they want to purchase a (virgin) daiquiri and get the alcohol for free, they can, and they’re enjoying it.”
She described Crab Island as “beautiful” and “family-friendly.”
“I bring my granddaughter out here so she can play on the jumpy things” at the water park, Brewer said. “I don’t see anyone out of control or being disrespectful. I literally have no idea what the beef is.”
Brewer also pointed out that Destin doesn’t have many public beach accesses.
“And if you’re not there before 9 a.m., you can’t find a place to park,” she said. “Here (at the island), we can park anywhere we want and hang out anywhere we want.”
Bale said if he was in politics, “I wouldn’t do anything to shut down businesses or growth or negatively impact the economy.”
Eye of the beholder
In response to the assertion that the floating structures pose navigational hazards, Poppell said the business association requires each of its members to have at least one white light on each their structures at night.
Some Destin officials and at least one local business official have complained that the floating structures do not make a good impression on visitors traveling over the Marler Bridge.
Councilman Chatham Morgan noted at the May 7 council meeting that some people view the structures as a “floating trailer park.”
Faithful meeting attendee Leigh Moore, who is a spokeswoman for the Howard Group development company, said the company supports the council’s efforts to regulate Crab Island.
The Miramar Beach-based Howard Group is known for such high-end commercial developments as the Silver Sands Premium Outlets and Grand Boulevard in Sandestin.
Moore said much of the problem with Crab Island is, as others have stated, “a lot about optics” or the way it’s perceived.
“I think self-regulation can work, but in this case, I will tell you from the optics perspective, there is nothing that’s going to make that look better out there,” Moore said.
Some of the island business owners later fired back when such comments were mentioned.
“What about the (Destin) Seafood Festival and the tattoo vendors and food trucks at HarborWalk Village?” Poppell said.
“The HarborWalk has pretty much turned into a carnival,” Brown replied.
He added that, “The County Commission and the City Council keep talking about Crab Island being the ‘wild, wild West,’ but they only see it from the bridge. We’ve invited them to the island, but they haven’t come out.”
From the deck of WaterWorld, Shipp scanned Crab Island and the assorted, spread-out floating structures that house other businesses.
“It’s a group of good-looking buildings,” he said.