Destin willing to put 'skin in the game' to reopen East Pass Beach Area to public

Tony Judnich
Northwest Florida Daily News
Boaters enjoy the warm temperatures and calm water on U.S. Air Force property next to the Marler Bridge near Destin on Memorial Day.

DESTIN — City officials plan to ask Okaloosa County Commissioner Mel Ponder for help in talking with an Air Force leader about possibly removing fencing and restoring at least some lawful public access to the popular East Pass Beach Area next to the Marler Bridge.

As part of an 82-acre federally owned parcel, the beach extends from the bridge and the “Welcome to Destin” billboard south to the west jetty on the eastern tip of Santa Rosa Island in the unincorporated county. The beach also runs under the bridge and is a stone’s throw from Crab Island.

Previously: Eglin's East Pass Beach Area 'Redneck Beach' near Destin remains off limits to the public

The latest:'Barriers have proved ineffective at preventing trespassing' at East Pass Beach Area

Boaters enjoyed the warm weather and calm water on U.S. Air Force property near the Marler Bridge near Destin on Memorial Day. Destin officials want to talk to Eglin Air Force Base officials about reopening the East Pass Beach Area at the west end of the bridge.

Ponder represents District 5, which includes Destin. While the city leases a bit of land from the Air Force for the welcome sign, the overall East Pass Beach Area is just outside the city limits.

Dozens of people, including boaters, continue to trespass on much of this stretch of beach despite 96th Test Wing Commander Brig. Gen. Scott Cain declaring it “permanently closed” in May 2020 because many visitors were misusing it.

Problems that led to the beach’s closure included illegal commercial activity by water-bound vendors, carelessly discarded trash, an incompatible and unsafe blend of beachgoers and moving vessels along the shoreline, vehicular traffic traveling in the wrong direction on the shoulder of U.S. Highway 98 and vehicles being parked on the shoulder and beach area.

Bubba Hoffman (left) and Austin Lollar with Calvary Group lay out the location for an 8-foot fence that would run from the Eglin Beach Club east under the Marler Bridge and back around west to the U.S. Coast Guard Station. The Air Force property on the southwest side of the bridge was closed by Eglin Air Force Base's commander last year.

Concrete barriers that were installed to block vehicles from getting to the beach and to prevent unsafe parking on the road's shoulder remain in place.

And after noting that the barriers failed to prevent trespassing on the Air Force land, Cain announced this past spring that fencing would be installed. In early April, construction began on fencing that runs from the bridge to the Eglin Beach Club gate on the south side of U.S. 98 and from the bridge to the Destin Coast Guard Station on the north side of the highway.

At Monday’s City Council meeting, lifelong Destin resident Carrie Harbarger expressed hope that the fencing can be removed.

“We really need to aggressively have some conversation about this,” Harbarger told the council. “The people in Destin proper have nowhere to go to the beach. Furthermore, that’s the tackiest-looking thing (at) the gateway to our beautiful town. It just doesn’t look good.”

Councilman Rodney Braden agreed.

“It’s really Destin’s front door and it’s really affecting us,” Braden said. “It gives Destin a black eye.”

He said perhaps city staff could talk with Air Force officials about the possibility of getting the fences taken down and having the city manage the beach area and keep it clean.

Councilman Dewey Destin then suggested that city officials partner with Ponder and other county commissioners and ask Cain about what could be done to make the beach area more accessible. Destin said city funds and county bed tax money could be used to help pay to keep the area litter-free and provide law enforcement.

The Air Force-owned East Pass Beach Area south of the Marler Bridge was closed in May 2020. Destin officials want to talk to Eglin Air Force Base officials about possibly reopening the area.

Mayor Gary Jarvis later received the council’s approval to talk with Ponder about arranging a meeting with Cain to discuss those and related matters.

Ponder was elected to his first four-year commission term last November. He served as Destin’s mayor from 2014 to 2016 and as a member of the Florida House of Representatives from 2016 to 2020.

“Commissioner Ponder is a tremendous leader and representative of our community and I think between me and him we can have that discussion with the commander and then we’ll come up with some solutions,” Jarvis said. “I think the feeling of this council is the fence is not tenable and that we would like some other types of options to be presented, and we’re willing to put some skin in the game in the process.”