Gulf of Mexico
Gregg Pachkowski

Florida: Opening of controversial Perdido Key beach parking lot delayed for environmental changes

The planned opening of a much-debated beachfront parking lot on Perdido Key has been pushed back because of concerns about its impact on environmentally sensitive coastal dunes.

Tim Day, Escambia County's natural resources management director, said a draft design of the proposed 44-car lot has a "fatal flaw" because it interferes with the dunes.

In an email to county commissioners, Day said the designs will have to be revised to address "major environmental issues." He said the revisions, which should be finished by July 26, will likely result in the loss of some spaces.

But Day said the delay doesn't mean the plan is dead.

Day's update, provided to commissioners July 16, is the latest development in the long-running controversy involving the beachfront lot located east of the Crab Trap restaurant at 16495 Perdido Key Drive and near several condominium complexes.

he county had previously said the lot could be open as early as this month.

The county bought the lot in 2013 with a $2.3 million federal grant, administered by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, to protect the critically endangered Perdido Key Mouse. The county added another $787,000 in local funds to complete the purchase, which the county said would also provide public beach access.

But the 4-acre beachfront lot was never developed for parking and became a major issue in the District 2 county commissioner race when opponents of Commissioner Doug Underhill questioned why the public was being denied access to the county-owned beach.

Commissioner Jeff Bergosh has also advocated for the land to become a public beach access. Bergosh said the public deserves to be able to use the approximately 300 feet of beach.

He said Friday that he anticipates the parking lot will be open by this winter.

Land for sale in Perdido Key on May 7, 2018.  As Perdido

Land for sale in Perdido Key on May 7, 2018. As Perdido Key continues to grow, one county commissioners wants to purchase undeveloped beach land to ensure public access. (Photo: Gregg Pachkowski/gregg@pnj.com)

"We are doing everything in conjunction with the  U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service," he said. "It is a travesty that we aren't doing anything out there right now, the dunes are littered with trash and rubbish."

Bergosh said he is passionate about the issue because he is a native of the area and remembers fishing on the key as child.

"Back then, there weren't any 'no trespassing' signs and it is just sad to see how it has been carved up with so little public access," he said.

But Underhill said he believes federal authorities will eventually reject any proposal the county puts forward.

"Nothing can be done on that parcel without the approval of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service because it was purchased with their money to protect environmentally sensitive land," said Underhill, who added that he would like to see the county purchase public access land elsewhere on the key.

Federal officials will have final review of the project and there is no timeline for how long the review might take, Day said.

A 2015 agreement between Escambia County and the federal government governs development on the key. Endangered and threatened turtles, birds and beach mice are carefully monitored under the agreement. If too many of the protected animals are disturbed, the county could lose its ability to control development permits.

Under the agreement, the county is requirement to place a certain amount of land in habitat conservation in order to continue issuing development permits. Underhill said the county could use the 4 acres as leverage to develop other beachfront land as public parking and beach access.

The homeowners association of the Seafarer Condominiums on Perdido Key has filed a petition against the county's plan to open the nearby beachfront lot to parking.

Attorney Will Dunaway is representing the association.

Dunaway said the association is awaiting an Escambia County Circuit Court judge's opinion. He said the condominium owners believe it was inappropriate for the county to use land purchased with the conservation grant money for the parking lot.

"My clients hope that when people know the facts behind this, they will understand that what we are trying to do is to preserve habit conservation and to put public beach access where public beach access make sense," he said.  

Melissa Nelson Gabriel can be reached at mnelsongab@pnj.com or 850-426-1431.

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