Destin mayor: Air Force is 'resolute' on keeping bulk of East Pass Beach Area closed

Tony Judnich
Northwest Florida Daily News

DESTIN — The Air Force apparently isn’t budging on its aim to prevent most people from accessing its East Pass Beach Area next to the Marler Bridge and the city's large welcome sign.

Destin Mayor Gary Jarvis shared that update with the City Council on Tuesday. He reported that he and Okaloosa County Commissioner Mel Ponder met with 96th Test Wing Commander Brig. Gen. Scott Cain on June 30 to ask about the possibility of removing some recently installed fencing near the beach area and getting some of the property reopened to the public.

The Air Force is standing firm on keeping the popular East Pass Beach Area at the base of the Marler Bridge closed. Warning signs are seen at a gate to beach.

Cain’s resolve to keep most of the area closed, however, “is pretty resolute,” Jarvis told the council.

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 Marler Bridge and is a stone’s throw from Crab Island.

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.

In May 2020, Cain declared the area “permanently closed” because many visitors were misusing it.

Problems that led to the 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.

Once a popular tourist spot for photographs, the iconic "Welcome to Destin, The Worlds Luckiest Fishing Village" sign is walled off by barricades and high fencing. The Air Force is standing firm on its decision to close the popular East Pass Beach Area at the base of the Marler Bridge.

In response to these concerns, the Air Force installed concrete barriers on the edge of the road to block vehicles from getting to the beach and to prevent unsafe parking on the road’s shoulder.

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.

At Tuesday’s council meeting, Jarvis said Cain told him and Ponder that he is doing the best he can to keep most of the beach area safe from destruction, and that the fencing project is ongoing.

The mayor noted that the fencing and barriers do not prevent boaters from parking their vessels on the beach’s shoreline.

Jarvis said such boaters “must stay by their boats” and not go beyond the wet sand of the shore and posted signs because of the beach area’s ecologically sensitive sand dunes, wetlands and bird nesting sites.

Boaters enjoy a warm afternoon near the Destin Bridge during Memorial Day weekend.

Boaters spotted by Air Force personnel on the dry sand will be told to return to the wet sand, the mayor said. He added that anyone visiting the beach area is supposed to have a permit issued by Jackson Guard, Eglin Air Force Base's natural resources office.

Councilwoman Teresa Hebert asked Jarvis whether the Air Force would be willing to lower the unsightly fencing it installed by Destin’s welcome sign, which is seen by numerous motorists, including many first-time visitors.

“We can ask, but I don’t think so,” Jarvis said.

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Based on an idea previously discussed by the council, Councilman Kevin Schmidt asked the mayor whether his and Ponder’s meeting with Cain included any discussion of the city and/or county managing the beach area for the public’s benefit.

That’s when Jarvis replied that Cain’s resolve to keep most of the area closed is “pretty resolute.”

Boaters enjoy a warm afternoon ear the Destin Bridge recently.

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Jarvis reported that Cain said boaters still can go to the area’s wet sand sections, but no one is to park at the base of the bridge or walk over the sand dunes to access the area.

“It’s military property and if people want to have public access to it there are certain rules and regulations you have to follow, and unfortunately some folks have violated that usage for us, and so we have a big fence up where we used to not have a fence,” Jarvis said. “I wish I had better things to say.”