Taxing Tourists Countywide

To: Daily Rundown Readers

TOGETHER WITH

Good morning! Um, did we all survive yesterday afternoon’s gnarly thunderstorm? Today’s forecast looks much better, although as I’m typing this it’s already 80 degrees outside 🥵

Let’s get to it…

Watching the tropics

Disorganized showers and thunderstorms continue over the Bay of Campeche and southern Mexico in association with a broad low pressure area.

This system will move little during the next day or so, and little if any development is expected during that time due to interaction with land, according to the National Weather Service.

However, the broad disturbance should begin to move northward on Thursday, and a tropical depression is likely to form by late Thursday or on Friday when the low moves across the western Gulf of Mexico.

Regardless of development, heavy rainfall will continue over portions of Central America and southern Mexico during the next several days. Heavy rains could also begin to affect portions of the northern Gulf Coast on Friday.

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Helicopter tours in Destin are changing

timberview-helicopters
Source: Angela Bartlett-Johnson via Facebook

On Tuesday morning, the Okaloosa Board of County Commissioners voted to give Timberview Helicopters a 60 day window to come up with a new operating agreement for sightseeing tours at the Destin Executive Airport or cease operations. This comes after “apparent violations of FAA regulations and standards” according to Okaloosa County documents.

Prior to 2014, Timberview conducted air tours over Okaloosa County beaches and waterfront areas from off-Airport locations, although the company has most recently operated from the private helipad located on Highway 98 near Kelly Plantation Drive. 

Since 2014, Timberview has operated at the Destin Executive Airport under a series of Operating Agreements with the County. Under the current Operating Agreement for Sightseeing Flight Operations, dated April 18, 2017, Timberview is only authorized to conduct air tour operations from the Airport subject to a number of conditions. 

According to the countyat some point in late 2020, Timberview began additional operations from the Highway 98 location that had been used by another air tour operator, Beach Helicopters. 

“For a number of years, helicopter air tour operations have been the source of widespread community concern due to safety and noise concerns,” wrote Tracy Stage in a memo to the Commissioners. “According to complaints from residents, Timberview helicopters fly at very low altitudes when traveling to and from the beach areas to the Airport and the 98 Pad, almost always below 500’ and often as low as 200’ above ground level and as low as 100’ above buildings.”

  • A Henderson State Park rep spoke during the meeting stating that the helicopter tours are their number one complaint from park goers.

According to Stage, these flights have been the cause of a large number of complaints and are highly disruptive to the quiet nature of the residential and recreational areas near the Airport and the 98 Pad. 

“Low altitude operations over very congested roadways, densely populated beaches and in close proximity to vessels, structures and parasails also raise a number of safety concerns,” he wrote. “Over the past several months, community concerns and complaints have reached new levels as the number of air tour operations has increased significantly from both the Airport and the 98 Pad.”

In May 2020, the DTS tower estimated that Timberview conducted approximately 4,400 operations from DTS. It is also noted in County docs that Timberview’s helicopters are not equipped with flotation devices and “fly so low that it may not be possible to land safely on the beach in the event of an engine failure.”

According to the Operating Agreement, Timberview agreed to:

  • Operate only between sunrise and sunset.
  • Abide by flight procedures set forth in a Letter of Agreement for Air Traffic Control Services and FAA Part 93 Rules attached to the Operating Agreement. 
  • The Operating Agreement also requested that Timberview “avoid low altitude flight over homes adjacent to the Airport”. 

In 2019, as a result of changes in flight patterns necessary to avoid flying over Gulf Islands National Seashore, however, the Letter of Agreement was cancelled. Timberview and the DTS Tower Manager entered into a new Letter of Agreement in late May 2021, but the County states that they were not invited to participate in the development of the Letter of Agreement and had no knowledge it was being drafted. 

  • It was recommended that the agreement include the Airport, Eglin Air Force Base ATC, the FAA, the City of Destin and the residents living in the vicinity of Destin Executive Airport in the process. 

According to Stage, Timberview has operated after sundown which goes against the agreement. 

“In recent weeks, Timberview helicopters have been observed by DTS Air Traffic Control Tower as operating air tours after sunset with increased frequency in violation of the Operating Agreement,” wrote Stage. “The County has also formally cited Timberview for violating this provision in December 2020 when Timberview advertised night flights to see fireworks in the Destin Harbor during New Year’s Eve celebrations.”

Separate from safety and noise concerns, the memo to Commissioners cites that Timberview has frequently violated the terms of its Operating Agreement. A summary sheet lists 20 key violations since 2016. 

Violations include:

  • Conducting commercial and other operations not authorized by the Operating Agreement.
  • Failure to maintain proof of insurance for helicopters at DTS.
  • Failure to observe a variety of Airport rules and regulations. 

Now, Airport Staff proposes to file a formal complaint asking the FAA to take appropriate enforcement action and establish safe flight procedures for Timberview’s helicopters. 

On June 7, 2021, the Destin City Council unanimously approved a Resolution noting the City’s concerns with helicopter operations over the City and the impact of those operations on the quality of life for City residents and visitors. The City stated its support for the County’s efforts to address issues relating to helicopter operations. 

Based on Timberview’s Operating Agreement with the County, the County can terminate the agreement on 15 days written notice. The Commission is willing to give Timberview a 60 day window to work out a new agreement on “mutually acceptable terms.”

This means that 60 days from today, if a new agreement isn’t made, Timberview would have to:

  • Cease all commercial activities at Destin Executive Airport (DTS), this includes sightseeing flight operations and aircraft repair operations. 
  • Remove any property, equipment, or supplies from DTS unless permitted to be stored in a hangar.
  • (This does not affect operations at the Highway 98 helicopter pad)

The Board of County Commissioners is hoping to get an update on the progress of a new agreement in 35 days.

At Tuesday morning’s meeting, Timberview’s attorneys stated that there were no FAA violations against their client.

Okaloosa to expand the Tourism Bed Tax District countywide with special election

On Tuesday morning, the Okaloosa Board of County Commissioners approved a resolution to adopt the ballot language to hold a Special Election to expand countywide the Tourist Development Taxing District.

  • The election will be held on October 5 via the Mail-In ballot method.
  • Currently, the taxing district is includes areas in Fort Walton Beach, Okaloosa Island and Destin.

According to Okaloosa County, 60 of the 67 counties in Florida implement tourism bed taxes. Of the 60 counties implementing tourism bed taxes, 56 do so countywide.

  •  In the Panhandle, Okaloosa and Bay county don’t collect taxes countywide.

By Florida law, the area outside of the existing Tourist Development Taxing District is the area that gets to vote on the expansion. The new countywide TDT area would include adding 5 other cities:

  • Niceville
  • Valparaiso
  • Crestview
  • Laurel Hill
  • Shalimar
  • As well as additional areas of the cities of Mary Esther and Fort Walton Beach, and much more of unincorporated Okaloosa County.

In Okaloosa there are approximately 152,901 total registered voters in the County. Most of these voters reside in the expansion area, with 117,946 registered voters, according to County documents.

The Supervisor of Elections estimates that a traditional election would cost roughly $145,000 and $100,000 for the mail-in election. $80,000 of CARES Reimbursement funding has already been allocated from the Board for the election.

The City of Destin brought up an issue with the ballot language on Monday night. According to the county, the ballot language has to be 75 words or under and must be a yes or no question. Below is the ballot language.

  • “Shall the area subject to the Okaloosa County Tourist Development Tax be expanded to include all of the areas of Okaloosa County, including the municipalities, and with the funds to be collected through the tax on short term rental of lodgings or accommodations to be used as set forth in the adopted Okaloosa County Tourist Development Plan.”

Currently, Destin contributes roughly 66% of the current bed-tax dollars and Destin stakeholders want to make sure that they continue to get an equitable split of the revenue.

  • According to County Attorney Lynn Hoshihara, the money currently collected (and in the reserves) has to be spent based on the existing taxing district. New funds can be used for the amended district.
  • So, money in today’s reserves could not be spent in the north end of the county.

Crestview Mayor JB Whitten spoke before the Board offering support for making the bed-tax “fair and equitable” among the different cities.

  • Destin Mayor Pro Tem Dewey Destin asked the Board for a 30 day extension to allow City’s attorneys to work with the County’s attorneys on a “fair and equitable” ordinance.
  • Under state statue, Crestview would gain the guaranteed seat on the Tourist Development Council based on population. The 2nd seat would either be for Destin or Fort Walton Beach.
  • There is a plan to keep Destin at the table by permanently designating the City of Destin for one TDC seat as an entity involved in tourism, according to the county.

Commissioner Mel Ponder made a motion to delay a vote on the Resolution for 30 days to work out some of the concerns brought before them. However, it failed in a 3-2 vote.

Next up, the Board will vote on an Ordinance possibly in September, ahead of the October Special Election.

Other Reads

FWC and Florida Forestry Service ramping up enforcement following damage to state forest
Illegal dumping and damage to forest roads has prompted an increased law enforcement presence in Point Washington State Forest, with the potential for more serious action to come, according to Mike Mathis, manager of the Florida Forest Service’s Chipola Forestry Center.
FWC and Florida Forestry Service ramping up enforcement following damage to state forest
Illegal dumping and damage to forest roads has prompted an increased law enforcement presence in Point Washington State Forest, with the potential for more serious action to come, according to Mike Mathis, manager of the Florida Forest Service’s Chipola Forestry Center.
Texas man arrested and accused of hate crime against Asian family while visiting Okaloosa Island
A Texas man on vacation has been charged with a hate crime after he allegedly physically assaulted a family of Asian descent and told them to “go back to where they came from.” The incident occurred when witnesses say 54-year-old Wade Steven Anton used a racial slur and made racist comments toward the family at Beasley Park on Okaloosa Island, according to an Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office news release. 
Texas man arrested and accused of hate crime against Asian family while visiting Okaloosa Island
A Texas man on vacation has been charged with a hate crime after he allegedly physically assaulted a family of Asian descent and told them to “go back to where they came from.” The incident occurred when witnesses say 54-year-old Wade Steven Anton used a racial slur and made racist comments toward the family at Beasley Park on Okaloosa Island, according to an Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office news release. 
Deputies investigate drive-by shooting in Navarre
Deputies are investigating a drive-by shooting in Navarre Tuesday morning. The Santa Rosa County Sheriff’s Office says it happened on Blue Jack Dr. Deputies believe about 13 shots were fired from two handguns during a drive-by shooting.
Deputies investigate drive-by shooting in Navarre
Deputies are investigating a drive-by shooting in Navarre Tuesday morning. The Santa Rosa County Sheriff’s Office says it happened on Blue Jack Dr. Deputies believe about 13 shots were fired from two handguns during a drive-by shooting.

Ok, that’s all I have for you this morning. Hope you have a great Wednesday!

Jared

p.s. What did you think of this morning’s newsletter? Hit the reply button and let me know!

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