The Okaloosa County Commission signaled its optimism that Eglin Air Force Base’s Commander, General Jeffrey Geraghty, would consider reopening the beloved beach spot across the East Pass from Destin to the public – after the previous Commander, General Scott Cain, closed it during the height of COVID-19.
The Commission voted unanimously to broach a discussion with Eglin and General Geraghty about reopening the beach through a letter of intent to the 96th Test Wing about the beach. Destin Mayor Bobby Parker and City Councilperson Teresa Hebert came to the podium to speak in favor of a letter of intent.
The parcel, a whopping 82.4 acres in area, is currently owned by the US Air Force and is a part of the Eglin Air Force Base Range.
“I encourage you to support the [letter of intent to the Air Force],” Said former Destin City Councilman and current candidate for Okaloosa School Board Parker Destin, “We need to do this, but we need to do it right. It’s not going to come without significant allocation of resources. It’s going to require duplication of some of the infrastructure that we have at Brackin Park, everything from bathrooms to the sheriff’s presence. As you guys well know, I don’t think you could pay a park ranger to go down there tell large groups of Texans exactly what they can and can’t do on vacation. It gets to be a little belligerent and hostile. So we’re going to need the sheriff’s office on board.”
Commissioner Carolyn Ketchel reminded the rest of the commissioners that this was in her district. “I see some negatives,” she told the rest of the Commission, “I did reach out to former [Okaloosa County] Commissioner Kelly Windes, and he convinced me that it wouldn’t be a safe area for swimming,” Ketchel added if the County were able to reopen the beach and received the OK to patrol from the Air Force, they would be able to use lifeguards and Sheriff’s Office Marine Patrol to enhance safety measures and keep the beach cleaner. “I would like to see us do in-kind compensation with the military, not a payment kind of thing. But I honestly don’t believe that’s what they’re asking for. In fact, I think they’ll be glad that we’re taking this off their hands. They just didn’t want to manage it,” Ketchel concluded.
For his part, Deputy County Administrator Craig Coffey listed several issues the County, City of Destin, and the Air Force would need to work through if the reopening were to get sign-offs from all the people involved in the beach. “We couldn’t bring things together,” Coffey told the Commissioners, “and the military probably felt they had to close it, and I would say there were probably some valid concerns at the time, because we weren’t there to assist them. So, we’re trying to come back and knock on their door.”
Coffey said that a proposal from the County would include an overhaul of the facilities and new infrastructure on the beach. The upgrades would also include more personnel assigned to the area. According to Coffey’s proposal, the upgrades would include bathrooms, lifeguards, boardwalks, county maintenance support, turn lanes onto US-98, road signage, and parking.
Coffey added that the improvements in organization and safety at Crab Island – as well as the implementation of lifeguards on Henderson Beach acted as feathers in the County’s cap as far as the Air Force was concerned.
“We’re working on some kind of compensation, they typically want some form of compensation,” Coffey said of the Air Force, “We’re proposing not to really compensate them. But, we’re proposing some in-kind. We want to provide lifeguard service for the military facility there.”
But the deal is not done. Although the Okaloosa County Commission has moved forward with this effort, they will still need General Geraghty’s buy-in to see a change.
An article written by General Geraghty from March of 2023 suggests a slam dunk win is not in the cards for Okaloosa Elected Officials – though the COVID pandemic has long since ended. The General still has other concerns about the parcel of land.
“Over time, our Closed Test Areas on Santa Rosa Island that stretch west of the El Matador Condominiums all the way to Navarre Beach have become an easy target for trespassers who want to take advantage of the secluded charm of Eglin’s closed beaches,” Geraghty wrote, “Due to unauthorized activities, and to preserve and protect this national asset on the Eglin reservation, our team has installed barriers and additional signage on the east and west sides of Eglin’s Santa Rosa Island Closed Areas to further discourage trespassing.” Geraghty continued, “Additionally, our security forces will increase patrols in these areas and will begin issuing trespass citations to those who continue to violate our Closed Test Areas.”
The Commission and the Air Force had their differences over the closure of the beach to the public. General Cain closed the beach with a letter to the Commission and other organizations that closed the beach during the COVID-19 Pandemic.
Commissioner Nathan Boyles noted the General and the Commission didn’t see eye to eye about General Cain’s (the previous 96 Test Wing Commander’s) decision – or how he went about it. “It was not a conversation,” Boyles remembered, “It was a directive. We were not invited to have a conversation about how the County could assist in resolving issues that the military was encountering or perceiving. We were sent a letter saying, ‘This was happening,’ and then the barrier showed up. And so I think we felt like we didn’t have a whole lot of an opportunity to participate. That’s water under the bridge, as has been noted here. There is really solid leadership. We know, of course, they’ve got important stuff they’re doing in their day jobs, running a military and keeping us safe. But the fact that they’re investing energy and resources in engaging with the community now at a higher level, maybe, than they had in a previous administration.”
Commissioner Mel Ponder had a positive outlook on the potential for the County and the Air Force to find a solution. “We have new leadership,” Ponder said, “I want to thank General Geraghty. I want to thank Dale Marks. I want to thank the military, who’s willing to listen, who’s willing to think outside the box.”
Boyles added that he believes it will “be a process” and will take a while if it ever happens. “There does have to be a conversation and a partnership.”
No one has constructed anything on the land – at least since Andrew Jackson invaded Florida and took the State by force from Spain in 1819.
The land officially became federal property almost 100 years after President Teddy Roosevelt authorized the creation of the Choctawhatchee National Forest, which included this parcel of land.
As the clouds of World War II gathered in Europe and Valparaiso Gunnery Range (later Eglin Air Force Base) was built to train pilots – the Forest Service transferred to the National Forest to become what is now the Eglin Test Range.
After the creation of Eglin – the federal government transferred ownership of this beach parcel to the State of Florida, and the public was free to use the land for recreation. In 1988, the State swapped the property back to the Air Force in exchange for the land in the Fort Walton Beach area, which hosts Northwest Florida State College and UWF campuses. But, as Deputy County Administrator Craig Coffey pointed out in his brief to the Okaloosa County Commissioners, the act of the United States Congress that allowed the transfer contained provisions that left the beach open to the public.
In 2020, 32 years after the deal between the State and the federal governments concluded, the Air Force Closed access to the public, citing risks from the COVID-19 Pandemic that swept the country and killed more than one million Americans.