SHALIMAR — More than 80 percent of the Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office’s marine-related calls for service in recent years have been for activities at Crab Island, Sheriff Larry Ashley said at Monday’s County Commission workshop on possible island regulations.
Ashley noted that his deputies pulled 25 people from the waters at and around Crab Island just last weekend. The people who had to be rescued were either intoxicated or did not understand the weather conditions, he said.
“There are no lifeguards out there,” Ashley said. “We are the lifeguards.”
He also said that he passes the island every weekend on his way to go fishing.
“It’s become an adult nightclub,” the sheriff said. “It’s become a bar. There have to be some rules.”
At their July 17 regular meeting in Shalimar, they plan to consider whether to adopt an ordinance that would, starting Nov. 1, prohibit the sale, distribution or consumption of alcoholic beverages on any commercial floating structure at Crab Island.
The ordinance also would require each structure owner to prominently display at least his or her name and phone number on both front sides of the structure above the waterline.
In addition, it would establish the “Crab Island Entertainment Area” and require each owner who operates a commercial floating structure there to obtain a special county license.
Those structures would be allowed to remain anchored to the submerged island between dusk and dawn from March 1 to Oct. 31 in 2019 and 2020 as long as their owners meet other requirements.
The owners would have to pay an administrative fee to the county in order to conduct business within the entertainment area, according to the ordinance. The fee would be $1,000 per month or for any portion of a month that the structure operates in the area.
The owners also would have to have a 360-degree, white masthead light with 2-mile visibility mounted on their structures.
The ability to anchor at Crab Island from March 1 to Oct. 31 would expire on Nov. 1, 2020. After that date, all floating structures at the island would have to be stationed between dusk and dawn at a public or private marina or dock, within a permitted mooring field or on private property, including submerged lands.
At Monday’s workshop, several commissioners emphasized that while they want to regulate Crab Island, they’re not anti-business
Commission Vice Chairman Kelly Windes said he was born and raised in Destin and, after having been self-employed for 50 years, knows how entrepreneurs work.
While Crab Island business owners say they’re promoting family fun, way too many negative incidents at the island over the years prove otherwise, Windes said.
Commissioner Carolyn Ketchel said she has heard complaints of “stripper poles” being set up at Crab Island with children around.
She also said that she has fielded complaints about behavior “that should be taking place in private homes, not in public places. I’m not blaming the vendors, but this is what it has become: A carnival.”
The rules in the proposed ordinance would not hurt the private use of the island by residents and other visitors, said Commissioner Trey Goodwin, who used to go to the island when he was younger.
“I think there needs to be rules, and parity and fairness with land-based businesses,” he said.
An issue that arose several times at the workshop was the practice by some island businesses of selling virgin daiquiris and then giving away the accompanying alcohol for free.
While that scenario represents a loophole, it’s technically a lawful distribution of alcohol, Commissioner Nathan Boyles said.
The overall proposed ordinance, he said later, “in no way will appreciably impact the number of watercraft going to the island” but it could lead to less aesthetically pleasing vessels taking the spots of the commercial structures.
The submerged Crab Island is owned by the state but is within the county’s jurisdiction. A majority of the Destin City Council supports regulating the island’s commercial activities.
A Fort Walton Beach resident said the island businesses provide convenient food options for people on personal watercraft and other vessels. Island businessman Stan Shipp urged the commissioners to visit the businesses in person to see that they are not the cause of problems.
And island businessman Sam Poppell told the commission that he and the owners of other floating structures at the island want a long-term future there.
He pointed out that Epcot at Disney World offers is still considered family-friendly even though it offers alcohol.
“We’ve worked hard to foster a family environment out there” at the island, said Poppell, who added that it needs more boat lanes and water-depth signs.
He also suggested the county form a citizens’ advisory board, which could include a commissioner and a Sheriff’s Office employee, to craft rules for Crab Island.
But the “can has been kicked down the road for so long … if we continue to do that, Destin will continue to get more tarnished,” Windes said.
In an email he sent to the commission on Monday, Fort Walton Beach resident James Wiggins offered a possible solution to the island drama.
“Please consider dredging the entire Crab Island to improve tidal flow and water quality of the entire bay and its bayous,” Wiggins wrote. “Use the spoils to create a beach at a public park.”