Caring for the coastal dune lakes is our responsibility By Jacquee Markel. Photos by Nic Stoltzfus
My first cruise down 30A was 25 years ago. Windows were down, classic rock was playing and this Jersey girl couldn’t believe her eyes. Not only were the beaches pristine and the dunes breathtaking, they were deserted. There was something else distinctly different about this quaint beach road. There were lakes, lots of them. Each one unique. Each one a gem. I came to learn that these 15 lakes were different than any lake I had known. They were called coastal dune lakes that broke open to the gulf from time to time, merging salt and fresh water along with their inhabitants. My fascination grew as we built a home on Oyster Lake, and the lakes became part of me. I was in love.
So how do we honor these unique water bodies? How do we coexist without destroying them? I spend a lot of time thinking about that, especially as the next wave of development can be seen everywhere. Walton County is part of one of the fastest growing regions in the country.
The county has long considered the lakes treasures and is trying to develop measures that allow for limited development while protecting the lakes. In December of 2014, Walton County’s planning department introduced an ordinance to relax the regulations that protect our coastal dune lakes by increasing the amount of land that can be cleared of natural vegetation to build. The natural vegetative community that exists around our lakes and watershed perform several valuable functions including filtering contaminants before they enter the lake and absorbing storm water runoff. Lawns and landscaping will never provide the same efficiencies of function. Clearing invites invasive species and increases the severity of storm water runoff, creating a direct pathway for fertilizers from our lawns and other contaminants to flow into the lake. The effects can be seen as invasive species and algae, which are symptoms of an unhealthy lake.
After public outcry, the ordinance was tabled to allow for more input. So the question is, who should get more consideration, the natural resource or the landowner? Florida’s Natural Areas Inventory has given our coastal dune lakes a ranking that classifies them as globally rare and critically imperiled. On March 26, 2014, the Florida State Legislature passed Senate Resolution 1696 “recognizing the vital importance of Walton County’s coastal dune lakes to the ecological and economic health of this state.” So what should we do? Do we err on the side of caution or throw caution to the wind? Is bigger better and better for whom?
Living on a lake is a privilege. Along with the privilege comes the responsibility of stewardship. Perhaps living with that stewardship isn’t for everyone. The lakes have only our regulations and understanding of those who live near their shores to protect them. Instead of Walton County changing its current regulations to accommodate a particular vision for a bigger house, a pool, a guest house or more parking, shouldn’t we give a voice to the voiceless and show them the respect they deserve?
How we assess value is subjective. In the long run, by degrading the coastal dune lakes for the sake of a larger homestead, we will eventually devalue both and Walton County taxpayers will be left to pick up the tab.