Neighbors near Bay Drive Southeast are rallying to preserve a tiny recreational area

Tom McLaughlin
Northwest Florida Daily News

FORT WALTON BEACH — The city's website lists the Bay Drive Water Access as a neighborhood park, set aside for the public to enjoy as a location for passive recreation.

What was at one time a more expansive recreational area now consists of a single park bench overlooking a small swath of white sand fronting Choctawhatchee Bay that's about as wide as the roadway whose name it shares. 

Many who live in the affluent neighborhood near where Brooks Street and Bay Drive meet have a great affinity for the water access. They say it offers a perfect location to launch kayaks and paddle boards or simply to take in a sunset. Some recall days spent at the beach, which they say has been listed as a recreational area since 1945, with children and grandchildren. 

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"Generations of people have used this property," said Bay Drive resident Rick Stokes.

"This is an iconic piece of property," added Bob Grober, another neighbor.

Fort Walton Beach David Listro talks about his request to the city to vacate right-of-way easement on the west side Bay Drive Southeast to the water. The easement is adjacent  to a small neighborhood water access located at the end of the road.

Stokes and Grober are among many who feel threatened by the idea that one of their neighbors, David Listro, would ask the city of Fort Walton Beach to vacate land near the water access to allow him, he says, to construct a dock.

"It's going to turn into a nightmare. He wants to revert it to his private property," said Carol Grober, whose waterfront property at 205 Sloat Court is separated from the Bay Drive Water Access by a thin sliver of Listro's land that runs almost, but not quite, to the bay.  

Those who live close to the intersection water access have collected an estimated 800 signatures on a petition to be turned in to the City Council in advance of its May 11 meeting, when the easement issue is scheduled for discussion.

Listro said he believes his neighbors may not understand what it is he is trying to accomplish by having the city turn over its land to him.

He said that his property ends at a point about 14 feet from the water's edge and he is seeking to extend his yard so that he can remove a "huge pipe" at the water's edge that once carried stormwater. It is his plan, he said, to get permitting required to one day build a private dock.

"If the land is vacated to me, DEP (Florida Department of Environment Protection) has certain rules for single-family homeowners that might allow me to remove the pipe," he said. "My plan is to work with DEP to get this removed and make the surrounding area safe ... to create additional safe access to the water." 

The Fort Walton Beach City Council is scheduled May 11 to hear a request to vacate an easement adjacent to a small water access at the end of Bay Drive Southeast that overlooks Choctawhatchee Bay.

While the neighbors contend the 722-square-foot easement Listro seeks will cut into the limited beach space that sits at the end of Bay Drive, he said everything he wants to do would be on the other side of the still-existing right of way separating his property from the city's water access. 

An engineer that has been consulting Listro objects to neighbors describing the water access as a park. Any park that existed at the end of Bay Drive has long since washed away, said Debbie Donaldson, who Linked-In states works for Hargrove Engineers in Mobile. 

"We don't agree with calling it a park. It is a beach. It is a water access," Donaldson said. 

Donaldson said classifying the water access as a park is part of a campaign of misinformation being conducted by Listro's neighbors.

"We're talking technicalities here. This is just adding to the misleading information," she said. 

In an email, Donaldson said "the sandy area with the bench" at the head of the water access "is for stormwater runoff" and should, according to city drainage plans, be covered with rock. 

"This drainage plan is not being maintained, and is also causing flooding of Mr. Listro's property," Donaldson said.

Stokes, a long-time resident and one of the leaders of the petition drive, confirmed that the Bay Drive Water Access has dwindled in size over the years as storms and erosion washed away sand, and recent home construction in the area also has impacted the size of the beachfront. 

City documents indicate the park once resided east of the existing road right of way where the water access now exists. 

But Stokes contends the recreational area set aside by the city remains viable and he and other neighbors want to work with Fort Walton Beach officials to return the water access to its former glory.

"We're hoping, if this proposal goes away, we will be able to clean the area up," said Carol Grober. "We want to get it back to where it was before the construction and Hurricane Sally." 

Though they did not specifically address all aspects of Donaldson's email regarding the Bay Drive Water Access, city officials do not seem to agree with the engineer's reading of city documents regarding the property in question.

Asked if any of the 722 square feet Listro wants the city to vacate include land now considered Bay Drive Water Access property, city Planning Supervisor Tim Gibson answered via email, "yes, city staff considers all of the right-of-way next to the water as water access." 

Gibson later added, "the area in question is a right-of-way that provides public access to water." 

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Listro's efforts to change the face of the quiet neighborhood where he has lived for just more than a year extend beyond the area south of his home at 44 Bay Drive. He also has asked the city to vacate property on the north side of his home that abuts a small pond.

The pond, which county property appraiser maps indicate is located primarily within the boundaries of Listro's lot, for years has been the home to abundant wildlife and a source of peace and pleasure to Dave Yates, whose residence on Sloat Court backs up to it. 

"When I bought this property they said that area behind my house was a wetland and nobody could ever bother it, so I said, 'that's for me', and I bought it," Yates said. 

Fort Walton Beach resident Carol Grober talks about her neighbor's request to have the city vacate part of a right-of-way easement adjacent to this beach area at the end of Bay Drive Southeast.

Listro said he has no wish to damage the wetlands in the pond area, but an application for an environmental resource permit exemption he sent to the state appears to outline a plan to fill the pond itself and build a volleyball court.

"The work is in an artificial wetland created from my neighbor constructing his home several feet above my yard's grade. I wish to fill the approximately 12,000 square feet of isolated wetlands with sand to build a yard for my home," the application said. "In particular, I will be building sand volleyball courts. The sand will serve as an excellent filtration system for stormwater and has high absorption characteristics which will limit stormwater runoff." 

Yates called the assertion that the wetland is artificially constructed "very, very iffy." He believes the fresh water that fills the pond comes from underground streams flowing from the north.  

Listro said whether the city grants him the easement on the north side of his property or not, he intends to go through with his plans for a yard and volleyball court.

"That's still happening," he said. 

Fort Walton Beach residents gather at a small beach located at the end of Bay Drive Southeast as they discuss their neighbor's request to the city to vacate a right-of-way easement on the west side of the street.

Yates said Listro's efforts to do away with the wetlands ecosystem on his property already has gotten him into trouble with city and state authorities. 

Fort Walton Beach Police Department records show that in August 2020 Listro received a warning after admitting to using a sump pump to remove water from the area around the pond. 

An email from an officer with the DEP also warned Listro that he could face penalties if he continued attempts to "de-water" the wetlands in his yard. 

The hearing at which the City Council will be asked to consider both of Listro's requests to vacate city easements will begin at 6 p.m. at City Hall.

The City of Fort Walton Beach has been asked by a homeowner to vacate a section of right-of-way next to this small water access at the end of Bay Drive SE in Fort Walton Beach.

"We have had quite a bit of interest in this agenda topic," an email sent out by city planner Elizabeth Yount said. "The meeting space may not be large enough to accommodate everyone who wishes to attend."

The intense interest noted in the city letter is something new for most of the residents of the Bay Drive, Brooks Street and Sloat Court neighborhoods, said Bob Grober. Many petition signers have offered to spend time and money to clean up the beach area around the small park and the pond on the other side of Listro's property if the city votes to keep the land.

"I have never seen so many people come out of the woodwork, it has really been refreshing," he said.