The Okaloosa Commission is looking into banning floating structures at Crab Island, among other potential rules
SHALIMAR — Starting next month, floating commercial structures can no longer be anchored overnight at Crab Island.
Beginning next spring, the number of commercial vessels and floating structures allowed to operate at the submerged island party spot north of the Marler Bridge just west of Destin might be limited to 15 per year.
Additionally, a ban on most floating structures at Crab Island could take effect in 2021.
Those and other new and potential Crab Island rules were discussed at an Okaloosa County Commission workshop Tuesday.
Noting past alcohol-related problems, the fear of sea grass damage and recommendations from the county’s Floating Structures Committee, commissioners seem to be leaning toward further restricting large floating structures while continuing to allow smaller businesses there.
Last fall, the county began prohibiting the sale, distribution or consumption of alcoholic beverages on various commercial floating structures and vessels at Crab Island.
The prohibition on overnight anchoring of floating structures at the island takes effect Nov. 1. Starting that day, from sunset until sunrise, all floating structures within the county’s jurisdiction will have to be parked at a public or private marina or dock with the property owner’s permission.
Besides being in the county’s unincorporated area, Crab Island is within the boundaries of the Gulf Islands National Seashore, which is managed by the National Park Service.
For this calendar year, seashore officials issued 26 permits to vendors to operate at the island. Of those, 12 permits were given to floating structures.
National Seashore officials, who are concerned about the impact on sea grass beds, are "conducting a comprehensive commercial service planning process" that will determine which commercial activities on Crab Island are "necessary and appropriate," according to Greg Kisela, deputy county administrator for operations.
This review should be finished in time for the 2021 season, he said.
The commission on Tuesday discussed possibly using a lottery system next year to determine what vendors receive one of the potential 15 licenses to operate at Crab Island. Such a limit would help limit the impact on sea grass, Floating Structures Committee member Ken Wampler said.
The commission also later might require vessels or floating structures that operate at Crab Island and pick up passengers to retrieve them from a properly permitted and licensed private commercial facility.
That requirement would level the playing field between businesses with and without a physical base of operations.
And starting Jan. 1, 2021, the commission might ban all floating structures except houseboats and dredging equipment. The county staff is reviewing whether the board has the legal authority to impose such a ban.
Banning the structures from the island and implementing other additional rules on island vendors has the support of county Tourist Development Council members, Destin city officials and officials from the Destin Area Chamber of Commerce and the Greater Fort Walton Beach Chamber of Commerce.
"Many of our board members remember the years when there were no businesses at Crab Island — and visitors and residents alike enjoyed the environment," Matt Turpin, chairman of the Fort Walton Beach chamber’s board of directors, said in a Sept. 26 letter to the commission. "Therefore, we do NOT feel the unavailability of floating structures/businesses on Crab Island will adversely influence the enjoyment of this water treasure."
At Tuesday’s workshop, Tim O’Malley, who owns an inflatable amusement park and the floating structure called the Treasure Chest at Crab Island, told the commission his businesses get set up over sand, not sea grass.
He expressed dismay about some of the potential new restrictions on businesses at the island.
"What do we have to do to make a living in our home county?" O’Malley asked. "We already hear a lot of people say, ’If we don’t have a place to take the kids, we’re not going.’ "
Another vendor said he has been supporting his family for the past 11 years by selling ice cream and T-shirts — not alcohol — at Crab Island.
Unlike some of the large floating structures at the island, "Your ice cream boat is not the catalyst" for potential new restrictions on island vendors, Commissioner Nathan Boyles said.
Boyles later said the National Park Service will ultimately gain control over any commercial activity at the island and "we’ll ultimately have to bend to their will."
"To me, the driving issue is saving some little piece of Okaloosa County for the locals," Commissioner Trey Goodwin said.