BOCC hears public comments on beach ordinance

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In light of the coronavirus pandemic, the Nassau County Board of County Commissioners seemed as physically prepared as it could be Tuesday night to safely take comments from residents at a public hearing on a new ordinance covering county-controlled beaches. The proposed ordinance went through 32 drafts, according to County Manager and Attorney Mike Mullin.

No vote on its passage was taken Tuesday, and Sept. 14 was set by the board as the next public hearing on the proposed ordinance.

As well as accepting emailed and voice-mailed comments, a podium was set up outside the building where the board could hear and see any speakers, and the board also set up a Zoom connection for participants.

Comments read to the board regarding the current beach access “driving rights” included general support for the status quo as well as for more restrictions, increasing and decreasing hours for on-beach parking, allowing golf carts on the beach, and requests for more enforcement of the current law.

Mullin explained again that the county is required to get a federal “incidental take permit” if it is going to allow any driving on the beach. “Incidental take” is a term for accidently harming or killing a protected species, such as the loggerhead sea turtle. Mullin said the city and county have approved a grant to prepare an environmental habitat plan to deal with protected species, which includes getting that permit.

Mullin explained one of the reasons restricted hours were set under the draft ordinance during turtle nesting season was the time needed for official turtle patrols to take place. He went on to give a massive presentation on the background of the county’s need to impose restrictions and get the permit, saying it started with a lawsuit in Volusia County, and the county’s decisions were “right out of the court case.” Mullin presented Volusia County’s resulting plan and regulations as “a brief insight” into what has affected Nassau County’s proposed ordinance restricting where and when you can drive and park on the beach. He said the public is welcome to get a copy of the latest draft from the county in advance of the September meeting where a vote could be taken.

Mullin reiterated that the county’s current restrictions due to the emergency order in effect allow only Nassau County drivers with ID, Nassau County property owners with a special card issued by the Tax Collectors Office, active duty military members with ID, and those with “an ADA sticker, no matter where you are from,” to drive to park on certain areas of county beaches.

Mullin said these restrictions had dropped numbers and made it safer, adding that the board is supposed to review those restrictions before the end of the year.

He pointed out that the draft ordinance now allows beach buggies, and contains a definition for that, but requires other vehicles to be four-wheel drive or all-wheel drive to access the beach. Unless it’s an official vehicle, ATVs, scooters, dirt bikes, motorcycles, or similar vehicles are not allowed to enter or operate on the beach.

A pass to park on the beach subjects all vehicles and their coolers to a search and confiscation of alcoholic beverages.

The draft ordinance says camping will not be allowed on the county-controlled unincorporated “Atlantic Ocean” beaches from May 1 until Oct. 31, but makes an exception for year-round “primitive group camping” in the Burney Park parking area only, saying a three-day permit would be issued to active non-profit organizations registered in Florida if a representative signs an agreement with the county. The permit would be issued to groups of not less than 10 individuals and not more than 30. A $500 cleaning deposit would be required.

Camping would not be allowed on certain holidays, and other restrictions, such as no alcohol, no glass containers, and no electronic sound amplification between 11p.m. and 6 a.m., would also be in effect. Mullin emphasized there is no camping at all allowed right now under the county’s emergency order.

Parking in beach parking lots is restricted to certain vehicles under the draft ordinance, and horses would be allowed on the beach from sunrise to sunset but only if they are “equipped with a manure catch bag.”

A question from Mary Marks was read. Marks asked why on-beach parking is still allowed on American Beach, but it was not immediately answered.

Lowell Hall, an ad hoc member of the Beach Community Working Group and president of Citizens for Public Beaches and Shores, rose to address the board and Mullin, thanking them for their work. He said he works for no compensation and does it for his love of the county, the beach, and the people.

Hall asked about a situation where a driver who does not meet the current criteria for driving to park on a Nassau County beach instead gets on the beach via the Amelia Island State Park. Would they be stopped at the southern boundary of the Riverstone property, which is where the county’s control starts? Mullin said it was a good point, and that the area is posted with the current restrictions.

Summarizing his understanding of key points in the latest draft, Hall pointed out it does not reduce or enlarge existing on-beach parking areas and it does not require user fees from Nassau County residents. He added that he supports the management plan calling for kiosks as well as designated driving lanes and parking areas to control traffic. Hall mentioned the camping restrictions during turtle nesting season.

Hall then asked Mullin if sealed alcohol containers in coolers are checked, would the owners have to dispose of them. “Yes sir,” said Mullin, before adding, “If it’s sealed, they’re not going to take any action; obviously if you unseal it and start drinking it, they would.”

Hall confirmed with Mullin that the current draft of the ordinance will allow 24-hour parking in the off-beach parking areas so that fishermen can access the beach at night, and that fires would be allowed on the county’s beaches except during turtle nesting season.

Hall concluded by saying that he “prays that when the dust settles, and the turtles go south for the winter, most people will be satisfied.”

Other speakers rose during the public hearing to voice concerns about the amount of alcohol on the beach; whether restrictions would be lifted with a COVID-19 vaccine and whether some of the current limitations are racially motivated; the need for beach parking for those who have disabilities; the public’s love for the beach and the need to educate people on the county’s rules; the elimination of beach driving permit fees in the current draft; the restrictions on camping and the history of beach driving; and the proposed restriction on horses on the beach before sunrise and after sunset during turtle nesting season.

Leeper asked Mullin to look at the vehicle passes for Nassau County property owners who do not live in the county, and whether some sort of medallion or sticker could be issued. He also asked about the American Beach beachfront parking area in front of the historic Evans Rendezvous site. which was left out of one reference.

Commissioner Tom Ford asked Mullin to double check whether the sunrise and sunset restrictions on horses during turtle nesting season can be revised. Mullin said he would talk to Mary Duffy of the Amelia Island Sea Turtle Watch organization.

Commissioner Aaron Bell asked Mullin to consider adding conservation zones that restrict driving during high tides, which are contained in the Volusia County ordinance. Mullin said the board could do that. Bell also asked Mullin to consider adding county-sponsored family camping