By Thomas J. Monigan
Just how many vendors will be allowed to operate at Crab Island next spring and summer has yet to be decided, and the process for selecting who stays and who goes has not been finalized either.
That’s because Okaloosa County Commissioners “tabled” possible action on these issues until their meeting in March of next year. That happened at their most recent South District meeting in Shalimar, after a number of vendors spoke out passionately against a possible lottery system that would decide who would go and who would stay.
“We’re going to try to fine tune it a little bit and make some compromises, and we’ll have a better product,” said Chairman Kelly Windes. “This is not a surprise. We knew it’s a complicated issue, and we want to do it right.”
For the record, last summer there were 26 permits issued from the Gulf Islands National Seashore. Twelve of those involved floating structures, which are regulated by Okaloosa County. Permit holders paid $1,000 a month for that privilege.
What was supposed to come up for a vote recently was the recommendation from the Floating Structures Committee to make the number of permits no more than 17 for the 2021 season. And the method of selection would be a lottery.
Longtime vendors came out in force at the recent commissioners meeting to oppose this “luck of the draw” proposal. It was their contention that they should be “grandfathered in,” even though county attorney Greg Stewart said there were laws preventing this.
“That is a tricky component,” Stewart summarized. “We don’t have to pick winners and losers, and I can draft an ordinance that says that. I just want to make sure where we’re at.”
“I want these people to know they have a job from season to season,” Commissioner Carolyn Ketchel said. She also stated: “I’m not for the lottery, I want you all to know this.”
Heather Thomas also delivered some public comment. She and husband Chris own and operate Destin Vacation Boat Rentals, as well as Crab Island Company of Destin, which operates glass bottom boat excursions.
“I feel they were at least pretty open to what we had to say,” Thomas said. “So I’m not really surprised, I’m relieved.”
Chris Thomas added: “At least they’re going to look at it in smaller increments, instead of just a blanket rule that would affect businesses that weren’t intended to be affected.”
Madison Sullivan has spent nine years working at Crab Island for her father Jimmy “The Ice Cream Man” Perkins. Her public comment was slightly emotional.
“Crab Island basically raised me,” said Sullivan, who started out there at age 13. “The commissioners were much more understanding than I think anybody anticipated. I feel like they heard us, and hopefully the policies that come back in March will reflect that.”
Karen Perkins, Sullivan’s mother, said, “Well, I’m not for the lottery, of course, because there are 26 permits issued and to try to whittle that down to 15 is going to be, in my opinion, impossible. If they decide to send that out to the public for a lottery, the chances are nil and zero that I’m going to be able to continue.”
Sean Blaise of Cruisin Tikis said he was pleased with the commission’s action. His business has operated at Crab Island since 2018.
“It’s a start,” Blaise said. “Hopefully, they’ll come back with an additional amendment that’s less sweeping then what was proposed today.”
One change for next season that has already been approved and is not affected by the recent tabling: All floating structures within the county’s jurisdiction will not be able to stay at Crab Island overnight. From sunset until sunrise, they will have to be parked at a public or private marina or dock with the property owner’s permission.
Thomas J. Monigan’s career as a reporter and editor has seen him work at newspapers in New Jersey, New York City, Georgia, northern California and North Carolina. He has written newspaper and magazine stories that have taken him from Pensacola to Panama City, as well as coastal Alabama.