When a Cabinet officer comes to town, well, that is significant news.
And if that visit results in overturning the Coastal Barrier Resources Act (CBRA) designation on roughly 900 acres along Cape San Blas and St. Joseph Peninsula, well, that would end a 20-year slog for the county.
U.S. Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt visited coastal Gulf County last week, joined by Congressman Dr. Neal Dunn (R-Panama City) and aides.
Bernhardt, confirmed by the Senate in April 2019, arrived as part of a swing through Florida to get a “boots on the ground” look at the county’s argument over CBRA.
During his Florida swing, Bernhardt also visited St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge and the Everglades among other spots.
Back to his visit here.
In short strokes, the county has argued for nearly two decades that the CBRA designation was applied to coastal Gulf County in error.
With maps and other documents in a package that has been to Washington, D. C. and back numerous times, the county has contended that there was sufficient development on the Cape and Peninsula that designating the land for protection was erroneous.
CBRA, sponsored by former Florida Senator Bob Graham, aimed to place specific undeveloped coastal areas under protection.
“We believe we have a path forward,” said Assistant Administrator Warren Yeager, who has testified before Congress on the issue.
“This is the best opportunity we have had to remove 900 acres from CBRA.”
The county was successful prior to the hurricane in removing 40 acres from the CBRA zone.
The key this time around, Yeager said, was the work of former congressman turned lobbyist Steve Southerland.
The momentum since Southerland began pushing the issue in March has been “phenomenal,” Yeager said.
“This was all about personal relationships,” said Administrator Michael Hammond of Southerland’s work within Congress and various agencies such as U.S. Fish and Wildlife.
The Secretary told county officials he would return to Washington and research this issue and provide an answer in short order.
“If it is true what we told him, which we are sure, he said he would help us,” Hammond said. “If he can’t, he’ll tell us to stop.
“This is our best shot. If we don’t succeed this time, and I think we will, we should move on to another issue.”