Walton County Sheriff's Office isn't ready to ask for a spring break curfew or state of emergency
SANTA ROSA BEACH — The Walton County Sheriff's Office isn't ready to ask for a curfew or a locally declared state of emergency, but serious misbehavior issues with young people coming to southern Walton County for spring break did prompt a Tuesday appearance in front of the Walton County Board of County Commissioners by Sheriff's Maj. Audie Rowell.
"We believe that we still have a grasp on this," Rowell told commissioners during discussion of an agenda item from Commissioner Tony Anderson, who wanted some consideration of the potential establishment of a curfew to deal with problems created by the significant number of teenagers visiting the county for spring break.
Anderson, addressing the scope of the problem from his perspective, said he has received "plenty of emails in the past week or two about rowdy teenagers going off property (out of the places where they are staying and into surrounding private communities) and swimming in people's pools and damaging things."
"Whether it's a curfew or something else," Anderson said, there is a need for "... something ... to discourage this. ... It's kind of running amuck right now."
"There's a little bit of truth and a lot of rumors out there," Rowell told commissioners. But since March 1, Rowell said, deputies have responded to hundreds of calls, mostly along Walton County Road 30A, a two-lane beachside route lined with upscale vacation rental houses and private communities also filled with vacation-rental housing.
But, Rowell added, "what we haven't come to is a state of emergency." Most of the untoward behavior among spring breakers is happening from 6 to 11 p.m., according to Rowell.
That perspective was challenged by Kent Wallace, president of the homeowners association for the private Seagrove community along County Road 30A. According to Wallace, young spring breakers have been scaling a 20-foot wall into the neighborhood, which does not have vacation-rental housing. Once in the neighborhood, Wallace said, as many as 20 young people have congregated at a community pool drinking beer. And, Wallace added, sometimes dozens of young people have gathered at the edge of the community's beach and engaged in rowdy behavior.
"It's 'Fight Club' out there most nights," Wallace said, referencing a 1999 movie about a club formed by two bored men in which people violently beat each other.
Additionally, according to Wallace, the young spring breakers are out and about, creating issues for residents, as late as 3 a.m.
Wallace went on to urge that the county take quick action to address the spring break misbehavior.
"The time has come," Wallace said. Without quick action, he added, southern Walton County, where tourism is the backbone of the economy, will lose its luster as a desirable vacation spot.
"We are going to have a reputation that will definitely be a problem for us,” Wallace said.
The private beachside community of Seaside, a popular gathering place for young spring breakers, already has taken steps to address vandalism and underage alcohol consumption, establishing a few days ago an 8 p.m. curfew for people under age 21 not accompanied by an adult.
But what that has done, according to Wallace, is simply push those young people farther east along 30A, where they become a problem for his neighborhood and other neighborhoods along the road.
During Tuesday's discussion, the commission heard from its interim counsel, Clay Adkinson of the Adkinson Law Firm in DeFuniak Springs, who briefed commissioners on the difficulty of setting up a curfew or establishing a state of emergency.
Instead, Adkinson suggested that commissioners meet with Sheriff's Office personnel, ask "what are the actions they are actually seeing" from spring breakers, and then come up with a strategy to deal with the rowdy young people.
Rowell suggested to commissioners that it would be difficult for the Sheriff's Office to enforce an age-based curfew, due in large part to the fact that doing so would require individually checking IDs in crowds that routinely comprise hundreds of young people.
Commissioners, who took no action Tuesday in connection with either a curfew or an emergency declaration, were at the same time visibly frustrated by the situation with spring breakers, which will continue into the late days of April.
“I do not want to be labeled as being AWOL during a crisis,” Commissioner William “Boots” McCormick, who served as a Walton County sheriff's deputy for 30 years, told Rowell. “What can this board do that shows our citizens that we don’t want this, and we’re not AWOL, and we hear you?”
“If you’re there for us, and you support us, that’s all we can ask for,” Rowell said.
Commissioner Danny Glidewell subsequently pressed Rowell on the issue, asking specifically, “At this time, you don't recommend a curfew?”
“At this point, we do not,” Rowell said. But, he added, “At the moment we think there is a need for a curfew, or even a state of emergency, we’re going to be here (back in front of commissioners to ask for that action).”