OKALOOSA ISLAND — After some of its members angrily blamed a few residents for driving up the cost, the Okaloosa County Tourist Development Council on Thursday unanimously approved spending $3.5 million in county bed tax money for the East Pass dredging/beach restoration project.
That expenditure needs final approval of the County Commission, which likely will consider the issue in January. If approved, the project could begin by early March and be completed by early May.
The project calls for the Mike Hooks LLC dredging company of Westlake, Louisiana, to use a city of Destin permit to dredge about 240,000 cubic yards of sand from the East Pass federal navigation channel.
The channel, which was last dredged in 2014, requires maintenance dredging every few years to allow vessels access to the Gulf of Mexico.
For the upcoming project, most of the dredged sand could be placed on two eroded stretches of beach on Holiday Isle.
Some TDC members on Thursday expressed outrage over the county having to use bed tax money for the entire project. The county earlier had planned to partner with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which would have provided contractors for the job and contributed $1.5 million in federal funds toward the cost.
But earlier this month, Condo Alliance of Okaloosa Island officers David and Rebecca Sherry and John Donovan petitioned for an administrative hearing to dispute the Florida Department of Environmental Protection issuing dredging permits to the Corps.
Among other concerns, they allege that the Inlet Management Plan that determines where dredged sand is placed unfairly restricts areas west of Destin, such as Okaloosa Island. Other residents often have complained that the closest public beach accesses to Holiday Isle are off Gulf Shore Drive and a long walk away from the Gulf.
Still, county officials say the Inlet Management Plan calls for sand to be placed where it's needed the most: In this case, on Holiday Isle.
But they said the Corps will not participate in the project because of "permit challenges."
That means the county likely will foot the entire cost.
That raised the ire of TDC member Martin Owen, who referenced the Condo Alliance officers at Thursday's meeting.
"We're being held for ransom by three people over there!" Owen said while pointing and standing several feet to the left of a map depicting Okaloosa Island's eastern tip, the East Pass and Holiday Isle.
Owen said the petitioners' sand-placement complaints were "selfish" and "disgusting."
TDC Chairman Bruce Craul noted that $30 million in revenue must be generated to produce the $1.5 million in additional bed tax money that's now required to replace the lost federal funding.
Apparently referring to the Sherrys, Craul said "the power of one or two individuals to make us pay more just blows me away."
TDC member Ken Wampler pointed out that if the dredging wasn't needed, the beaches wouldn't receive sand.
And in what District 2 County Commissioner Carolyn Ketchel calls a "gentlemanly agreement," the project calls for some of the dredged sand to, in fact, be placed on Okaloosa Island.
The project calls for about 120,000 cubic yards of sand to go on a stretch of beach on Holiday Isle that extends about 4,000 feet east of the east jetty. About 30,000 cubic yards will be placed farther east on Holiday Isle and about 90,000 cubic yards to be placed on a roughly 1-mile strip of Okaloosa Island just west of the west jetty.
If the county doesn't get property owners' permission to lay beach renourishment pipes between Holiday Isle beaches that are set to receive sand, about half the sand will go on the beach by the east jetty and half would be placed on Okaloosa Island by the west jetty, said Greg Kisela, deputy county administrator of operations.
County Attorney Greg Stewart said the FDEP recently dismissed a complaint that the Sherrys and Donovan had filed about Destin's dredging permit.
Near the end of the meeting, Ketchel said the holiday season is a time of goodwill, and she asked the Sherrys and Donovan if they would reconsider their opposition to the county's plans.
"If you're making an offer, let us know," Rebecca Sherry told Ketchel. "But the devil's in the details."