Update on Airport Construction Progress

I’ve been getting a lot of emails asking what is going on with the airport relocation.  Here is what’s going on:

  • 11/29/2007 – Federal judge in New York issued an order to temporarily block construction.  The NRDC has also threatened a separate suit against the Army Corps of Engineers’ issuance of the 404 permit.
  • Court date of December 18th was set to determine how “permanent” the stay would be.
  • 12/4/2007 – Airport Board approved funding for around $100 million.
  • 12/10/2007 – December 18th hearing post-poned to January 8th because one of the three judges recused himself
  • Costs associated with the block of construction are estimated to be in excess of $1 million per month.
  • 12/17/2007 – Three judge panel mandated that the airport authority could authorize “preliminary construction work” that includes preparing the site for construction, surveying the property, identifying wetlands, erecting fencing, perform maintenance of existing roadways and placing of construction trailers.  Work to begin January 2nd.
  • Court hearing set for January 23rd.

That is all I have for now.  Randy, or anyone else on the airport authority board, feel free to email me with more information if you like.

This Week in Pier Park – First Retail Sign and Paved Street

Sometime in the last week they paved the road down the main Boardwalk of Pier Park in Panama City Beach. I was there last Tuesday and was told by a friend that it was paved when he walked it on Christmas. It never ceases to amaze me how quick some things happen.

Quiznos Sub is the first to have their retail sign up. They will open with the rest of The Boardwalk in February. Windows have been going in and will continue to be installed through next week. Enjoy the pictures below. Click on them to make them larger.

Click here for all posts on Pier Park.

St. Joe among top stock picks in Fortune Magazine

I hope everyone had a Merry Christmas, and I wish all a Happy New Year next week.  I will send out the regular newsletter this evening.

In an article published in Fortune Magazine December 14th, St. Joe was among Fortune’s top stock picks for 2008. At the time the article was written, Joe stock was trading at $28, now it is $34.19. It once traded for more than $80 a share in 2005. With St. Joe owning 710,000 acres, with more than 300,000 acres situated within 10 miles of the coast, analysts speculate that their land holdings average at $3,700 per acre, minimum totaling $2.6 billion.

Read the entire article here.

For St. Joe’s stock activity, click here.

Panama City Beach TDC Meeting Notes – Sea Turtle Lighting Ordinance – cont.

Notes from the December 21, 2007 TDC Turtle Lighting Ordinance Workshop

The December 19th meeting reconvened with 8 board members present.  Gary Walsingham was absent.

Board attorney Doug Sale advised the board he felt they had three possible courses of action.  The first option was to approve draft ordinance 12.20-1 that is a refined version of his 2.18.2007 draft.  12.20-1 provides for some limited grandfathering of existing light sources for economic reasons regardless of whether they meet the public safety exceptions in the draft. However, Sale advised that U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service communicated to him that the limited grandfathering proposal included in this version is unacceptable.  The second option was to approve draft ordinance 12.20-2 which is acceptable to the Service.  12.20-2 removes the limited grandfathering clause and instead provides for a extended compliance period until May 1, 2013.  Sale advised that the third option was to do nothing.

Sale also reiterated that not recommending an ordinance acceptable to the Service would likely put further beach renourishment projects (including the scheduled 2008 program) in jeopardy. However, Sale explained that there is some uncertainty about whether the Service has the statutory authority to require a lighting ordinance as a condition of our beach renourishment.

Yanni Patronis expressed concern about whether passing a lighting ordinance for beachfront property would result in further revisions that include non-beachfront property that may be found to have an effect on the turtles. Sale responded that he did not feel this was the case because the Service would not be able to make a connection between non-beachfront lights and renourishment.

Mike Bennett asked why the board was not also considering including nest relocation in the ordinance.  Lorna Patrick, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, advised that they no longer considered relocation an acceptable solution for lighting issues.  Patronis explained that he felt that PCB was an excellent location for relocations since our tourist season coincides with the nesting season.  Patrick stated that relocation would not be needed if ordinance 12.20-2 passed.

Marty McDaniel asked Patrick whether the Service will agree to look at other options(e.g. relocation), rather than non-beachfront lighting, in the event that regulation of beachfront lighting was found to not be enough to protect the turtles.  Patrick advised that she could not speak for Service but expressed confidence that no further action would be required if 12.20-2 passed.

Gayle Oberst explained that she was worried about the costs of compliance for all beachfront property owners, not just commercial businesses.

Buddy Wilkes asked whether it was possible to increase the bed tax to help cost-share compliance costs with private property owners.  Sale explained that this would be possible.  CVB resident Dan Rowe also suggested that the proceeds of the current 3rd beach renourishment cent could also be used.

The floor was then opened up for public comment.  Julian Bennett discussed other alternatives that could be explored instead of passing a lighting ordinance.

Julie Hilton expressed her belief that the proposed ordinances would not meet the goal of helping the turtles.  She referenced Wednesday’s testimony of the wildlife and lighting experts whose appearance her company facilitated.  She reported that the compliance cost of draft 12.20-1 for her four hotels would be $5 million which would be economically disastrous for her company.  She did, however, express that she could agree with draft 12.20-2 or her own draft that she then distributed to the board.

Charles Hilton expressed that the 5 year compliance period in draft 12.20-1 could not be met for his properties since the problems were unfixable.  He stated that rebuilding was the only option.  Hilton also advised against the board passing an ordinance for appearance purposes that they did not expect to be enforced.

Betty Briard, a property owner in Aquavista, suggested that the board either postpone the issue for further study(especially due to the fact that new drafts were just distributed today) or decide to challenge the Service.  She also expressed her opinion that the individual owners in Aquavista would likely ignore any ordinance that passed just like they ignore rules passed by their own property owner’s association.  Briard also questioned how much the TDC was spending  on this process of considering a lighting ordinance.

Doug Gilmore from the Driftwood Lodge and Osprey Motel discussed the nests that were located behind his properties this past season.  He explained that he believed that 100% of the hatchlings successfully reached the water.

Diane Brown asked the board to ignore Wednesday’s assertions by Dr. Fletemeyer and lighting designer Robert Laughlin that the Service was relying on untruths.  Brown disagreed with any assertion that the public would be disappointed with an ordinance being passed.  In support, she referred to the 2002 West End Pilot Turtle Protection Ordinance which she claimed continues to be supported by the community at large.  Brown also stated that it was her belief that the costs of compliance being quoted by some property owners were exaggerated.  She also suggested that if the Board decides to allow compliance through May 2013 that they require property owners to submit a plan of compliance no later than May 2009.  She also suggested that any discussion about the option of nest relocation be discontinued.

Lighting contractor Terry Selders explained that many older buildings on the beach could not possibly be retrofitted to comply with the proposed ordinances.

Robert Winston suggested that the Board not recommend a new lighting ordinance.  He expressed concerns about public safety, especially involving our spring break visitors.

After the public comments, Gayle Oberst expressed her support of draft 12.20-1.  Oberst made a motion providing that the board agrees to recommend that the Bay County Commission and the  Panama City Beach City Council enact ordinances based on draft 12.20-1.  The motion was seconded by Mike Nelson and passed by a vote of 5-2.  Chairman Phillips departed prior to the vote
and the Patronis and Rick Russell cast the dissenting votes.  Neither Patronis, nor Russell, made any comments concerning the motion.

Audience member Diana Brown then asked what the effect would be on the 2002 Pilot Ordinance.  Attorney Sale directed the question to Bay County Attorney Terrell Arline who advised that that decision would be up to the County Commission.

Editorial by Bryan J. Durta:

It is my opinion that the Bay County Commission and the Panama City Beach City Council should reject the TDC’s recommendation and instead enact Turtle Protection Lighting Ordinances based on draft 12.20-2.  This draft was prepared by TDC’s own attorney after considering both the needs of the community and the desires of the federal government.

Are the Hiltons, Julian Bennett, and their experts correct that the lighting ordinance desired by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service would result in few additional turtles reaching maturity and that better alternatives exist?  Probably, but is it really wise for Bay County to take on the state and federal government which fund the majority of our beach renourishment costs?  And what will be the costs of this legal battle?  Are the property owners who oppose a complying ordinance going to form a co-op to pay the county’s legal expenses?  Will the national press brand us as a environmentally unfriendly community?  If so, how will this effect tourism?

Does this community really want to put our beach renourishment project at risk based on financial concerns expressed by just a few property owners? More property owners expressed concern when cutting Spring Break funding was on that table than expressed concern over the lighting ordinance.  And are these financial concerns being exaggerated?  Phillip Griffits, Jr. of the Sugar Sands Beach Resort explained to the Board that his property spent $30,000 bringing his 70 beachfront rooms and public facilities in complying with the West End Pilot Ordinance.  While he acknowledges that he is probably not in 100% compliance due to conflicting public safety laws, he believes that the Service considers him to be a model property that has sufficiently complied.

While every property is unique, I believe that further investigation is needed before accepting the assertion of Paradise Found Resorts that they would need to spend over 14 times more per room to comply than the Sugar Sands did.  And what will be the financial loss to the community if the Service does succeed in preventing any future beach renourishment on Panama City Beach?  We need to remember that the Service potentially has the ability to prevent any renourishment even if we have the financial means to pay for it ourselves.  And are the concerns about public safety valid?  Are turtle-friendly communities such as Rosemary Beach and Watercolor having crime and safety issues that are just not being reported in the media?  And what about all of the new accommodations on Panama City Beach that have been built over the last 10 years in compliance with the turtle-friendly lighting requirements?  Are they having more public safety problems than the older properties?

While I agree that government regulation is getting out of hand, it is just not wise for Bay County to take on the responsibility for fighting the federal government on this issue.  It is in our best economic interest to follow the lead of vast majority of Florida’s beachfront counties and enact a turtle lighting ordinance that has the support of the federal government.

Panama City Beach TDC Meeting Notes – Sea Turtle Lighting Ordinance

Notes of the December 19, 2007 TDC Meeting by Bryan J Durta.

8 of the 9 board members were present with Gary Walsingham absent.

Chairman Andy Phillips announced the meeting schedule for 2008.  The board will meet monthly on the 2nd Tuesday of each month with two exceptions.  The regular January meeting will be on the 9th and the November meeting will be on the 12th.  It was also announced that the Strategic Planning Retreat will be held on January 22nd.  In addition, Peter Yesawich of Y Partnership will make a public presentation on January 21st concerning the state of the tourism industry and how Panama City Beach fits in.

Mexico Beach Community Development District:  Tourism Director of Mexico Beach, Lynn Marshall, presented the 2007-08 Mexico Beach Community Development Council Budget and Program of Work to the TDC.  The total budget is $150,300.00.  TDC Office Manager Marcia Bush advised that it was her opinion that the budget met the statutory requirements.  The board voted 8-0 to recommend that the BCC approve the  contract with the CDD.  The CDD is the Mexico Beach equivalent of the Panama City Beach Convention & Visitors Bureau.

FL DEP Beach Management Funding Assistance Grant Agreement:  Lisa Ambruster of Sustainable Beaches LLC, recommended approval a grant agreement for the beach erosion control activities and the board approved the agreement 8-0. The DEP share of the $3,950,000 cost is $1,123,75 with the TDC being
responsible for the remaining $2,826,225.

Sea Turtle Lighting Ordinance Workshop:
Audience member Julian Bennett distributed a proposed motion to the board providing that the board make no restrictions on the number or length of public comments concerning the ordinance.  The motion was made by Mayor Oberst and passed 8-0. Chairman Phillips then explained to the board and audience that the purpose of the workshop was to hear input from both sides to assist the board in making a recommendation to the City of Panama City Beach and the BCC.

The draft ordinance written by staff was then presented by Doug Sale, TDC Legal Counsel.  Sale advised that the scope of the board’s work can be limited to the connection between the ongoing nourishment project and the Endangered Species Act.  He explained that the board did not need to be concerned about whether or not the sea turtles actually deserved or needed additional protection.  Sale also explained that the board was dealing with the 2006 pronouncement by U.S. Fish & Wildlife that they would not continue to provide positive consultation with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers concerning our renourishment project with a ordinance.  It is Sale’s opinion that the Corps would not continue to approve future projects without this positive consultation with USF&W.

Presentations by Janet Missi and Lorna Patrick of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service were then made.  Missi advised that the Endangered Species Act was invoked if just one turtle was impacted and that the Service did not believe that the public safety concerns of the community were legitimate.  Patrick advised that the Service finds the nest relocation option to be inconsistent with the Act.  Patrick also explained that any post-1996 development south of the Coastal Control Line should already have met the Service’s turtle protection requirements assuming no deviation from the development orders approved by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection had been followed.  Patrick also advised that the Service would allow the ordinance to ignore both interior lighting and  properties north of the southernmost road.  In response to a question from President Rowe, Patrick made it clear that the Service expected the TDC to follow their previous agreement to make their recommendation no later than December 31, 2007.  In response to a question by Rick Russell concerning the proposed compliance date of May 2009, Patrick explained that a compliance period of 1-2 years would be acceptable while Russell’s suggestion of a 5-7 period would not.

Kennard Watson of St. Andrew Bay Resource Management (aka Bay County Turtle Watch) discussed his group’s monitoring program and the 2002 West End Pilot Turtle Protection Ordinance.  Watson explained that he felt that the ordinance had been successful at reducing hatchling disorientation and suggested that the Board consider just extending the 2002 Ordinance to the entire beach.

Dr. Fletemeyer then discussed his 2006 lighting survey report prepared for the TDC.  Julian Bennet assisted with his presentation.  Although acknowledging that his study had problems, Fletemeyer defended his report that was rejected by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service mainly due to the methodology used.  Fletemeyer also expressed his belief that the Service’s emphasis on beachfront lighting will not solve the issue since there were
many other impediments to hatchlings successfully reaching adulthood.  For example, he explained that Frank Brown Park was the worst light polluter on the beach.  The Doctor also expressed his belief that relocation of turtle nests would be just as effective as a lighting ordinance and a better choice for this area due to economic concerns.  In response to a question from Marty McDaniel, Fletemeyer announced that he believed the positive effects from staff’s proposed ordinance would be zero or at least minor.  In response to a question from Mayor Oberst, Fletemeyer explained that the Service’s position that a lighting ordinance would have no effect on public safety conflicted with the opinion’s of three public safety experts. Counsel Sale suggested again that the Board deal with the fit between the renourishment project and the Endangered Species Act.  Sale also expressed his opinion that Fletemyer’s concerns would be better dealt with at the state or federal level.

After extensive comments from the public, Board Attorney Sale then made some suggestions to the board concerning the ordinance.  First, he advised that the Service is likely to reject any grandfathering of existing properties. He suggested that Board instead exempt specific lighting fixtures that can be proven to have no greater effect on our renourished beach that it would have had on our pre-1998 unnourished beach.  Sale explained that it was his opinion that even this limited grandfathering might be unacceptable to the Service.  He recommended that relocation not be addressed since it would be very difficult to defend in any legal proceedings.  Sale also recommended the board follow the TDC’s prior agreement to suggest approval of a lighting ordinance no later than December 31, 2007.  Sale then distributed and explained a new proposed ordinance that he completed last night after discussion with the community and the Service.

The Board then voted to continue the meeting on Friday at 9AM after the members and community had the opportunity to study Sale’s new proposed
ordinance.

Pier Park Pictures – 75 retailers announced

With over 75 retailers announced and more to be announced in the near future, the progress at Pier Park is smoking. I’ve been onsite taking pictures every one to two weeks and I still seem to be getting passed up. I can’t keep up with how quick they are working.

The official Grand Opening for The Boardwalk is on schedule for February 15th, 2008 and will include anchors Margarittaville, Ron Jon Surf Shop, Borders Books and Music, Dillard’s, Fresh Market, JCPenney, and Old Navy. Panera Bread, Target and The Grand Movie Theater are already opened. For those of you who are locals and have not eaten at Panera Bread, I highly recommend it. My wife and I frequent it often and love it.

One of the things that I love about Pier Park is that it isn’t just another shopping mall. The architectural detail and the strategic layout of the entire project is goaled at making you feel good about being there. Paul Adjaharian, Vice President for Simon Property Group, says that it is the goal of Pier Park to make you feel good when you are there, the buying will take care of itself. Pier Park will be a place for people to gather and spend time with one another and family. I know my wife and I will be spending plenty of time there.

One place I can’t wait to spend money at is Margaritaville. I’m looking forward to eating on the second floor terrace watching the sunset over the Gulf of Mexico. The City Pier sunsets are awesome.

Click here for an entire list of announced tenants and a basic map as to where they will be located.

Click here for all the information I have on Pier Park.

Also, below are some pictures that I took on Tuesday.

I’m currently working on the story board for my next Pier Park movie. I’m hoping to start shooting that this week and have the video done by the first or second week in January.

Airport Relocation Non-Binding Referendum Vote Stats

I was looking for some specifics on the non-binding referendum vote on the airport relocation, and I found it.  The vote was placed on the ballot for the Democratic Presidential Primary on March 9th, 2004.

Randy Curtis, the Executive Director of the Panama City – Bay County Airport and Industrial District was gracious enough to provide the details:

The question on the ballot was as follows:

TITLE: Non-binding referendum question on the Bay County citizenry’s desire to relocate the existing Airport. Do you favor future relocation of the Panama City Bay   County International Airport at no cost to the Bay County taxpayer?

The statement that I hear quoted most often regarding this vote is that “an overwhelming majority of Bay County voters voted against airport relocation”. The results of the vote taking into consideration the total number of registered voters in Bay County was as follows:

Yes                                       9,500                    10.556%
No                                        11,051                   12.280%
Over Vote                                   2                      0.002 %
Under Vote                              79                       0.088%
Did not vote                       69,360                   77.074%
Total registered voters    89,992                100.000%

It is obvious that the majority of registered voters decided for whatever reason not to vote. I have  several concerns regarding this vote. First, the FAA had not completed nor released the results of  the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). The EIS was an in-depth analysis of the airport  relocation project that was conducted independently by the FAA. In the EIS, numerous alternatives including expansion of the existing airport site, joint use with Tyndall AFB, relocation to various sites in and around Bay County, and a “do nothing” alternative, were evaluated in great detail. One could question whether or not the voters had adequate information to make an informed decision since the EIS and other critical studies had not been completed when the election was held.

Another comment regarding the vote is that it was not fully representative of those that use and pay for the Airport. Two-thirds of the passengers that use the current Airport are not Bay County citizens. They are either visitors that are traveling to this area or citizens of counties outside of Bay County. This fact is also the basis for my comment that the majority of those that pay for the airport were not represented. The Airport District does not receive any monies directly or indirectly from local taxes to pay for the operation and development of the airport. The funds that do pay for the airport come from aviation user fees collected by the state and federal governments and revenues generated directly by the Airport Authority. The federal and state governments collect various user fees from passenger ticket sales, aviation fuel taxes, car rental surcharges, and other aviation services. These monies are placed in trust funds and are distributed to airports in the form of grants to be used primarily for aviation infrastructure development. The Airport Authority receives revenue from airport tenants such as airlines, fixed base operators, rental car agencies, parking, concessions (gift shop, restaurant, lounge, advertising, etc.),and other businesses that operate at the airport. The basic premises is that these companies pay for the right to conduct business at the airport and we in turn provide the aviation facilities that allow them to operate.

One might argue that the airport is indirectly subsidized by local tax payers that provide municipal services. However, in this regard the airport authority has its own police and fire departments funded directly by the authority. We pay for utilities (water, sewer, trash, natural gas, electricity) the same as any other business. The bottom line is that the airport is funded by the users of the airport who pay the user fees to the state and federal government and use the services of the businesses that operate at the airport. The majority of those that use and pay for the airport did not have an opportunity to vote since they are not Bay County citizens.

In regard to public input as to whether or not the airport should be relocated, the Airport Board took into consideration many factors. Certainly the non-binding referendum was taken into consideration; however it must be placed in proper context as noted above. The Board also took into consideration public input that was provided at more than 125 public hearings, workshops, and other public meeting that were held over the past 10 years. The Board took into consideration dozens of resolutions and letters of support for the project received from area municipalities, elected officials, chambers, tourist development councils, economic development organizations and other groups. Numerous permitting and regulatory agencies (FAA, US Army Corps of Engineers, FDOT, FDEP, Florida Department of Community Affairs, Bay County and many others) conducted in-depth analysis of the project. Likewise, their input was an important consideration as the  Board decided whether or not to move forward with this project.

Thank you Randy, I know this answered some questions that I had.  I hope that it will help educate the public as well.