Four months after public outcry led Tyndall Air Force Base (TAFB) commanders to withdraw a proposal to restrict access to coastal waterways, the military has come up with a revised plan.
This time, they're out in front of the issue and looking for buy in.
The Tyndall installation has 129 miles of coastline and most of it is unprotected, making the base a potential target for terrorists or criminals. "Anything that would affect our ability to generate air power," is a concern, Maj. Anthony McCarty, commander of the 325th Security Forces Squadron, said.
Last May, Tyndall commanders applied to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for a permanent 500' restricted area along the base's coastline. If approved, it could have closed off popular areas such as Shell Island and Crooked Island Sound to recreational and commercial boaters.
Few people were aware of the proposal until just before the deadline for public comment. When word of the plan became public, opponents launched a social media blitz and asked local, state and federal officials to intervene. TAFB officials later withdrew the application and said the language in the document was more restrictive than intended.
"There was a little convoluted portion of the proposal that misled people into believing that we were going to close Shell Island and Crooked Island and other areas of the waterways that not only the community uses but the people that live and reside on Tyndall Air Force Base use," Maj. McCarty said. "That was never the intention."
The revised plan would grant the base commander authority to impose a temporary closure if there is a specific, direct threat to the base, its resources or personnel. "Even when we would implement a restricted area it would be very temporary in nature and only the amount of area that would be required in order to mitigate a specific threat," Maj. McCarty said.
Bay County Commissioner George Gainer isn't comfortable with the new proposal. "In a heightened security risk, there's nobody here that wouldn't say ‘do whatever it takes to make the base safe and make the people of Bay County safe,'" Gainer said. "But at this point, that's very vague."
Gainer said he wants the plan to be well-defined and clearly outline what constitutes a security threat. "We have every confidence that Tyndall would use great discretion in closing these areas but we need to know under what conditions and how long," Gainer said. "We just really wonder if it's necessary to reach this far."
In neighboring Mexico Beach, charter boat captain Tom Adams is concerned that even a temporary closure would be bad for business. "I just hope that it never comes to that," Adams said. "It would really hurt our fishing and probably a lot less people would come to vacation so there would be less people to take fishing... it would hurt all the businesses here."
Maj. McCarty didn't address specific scenarios, but said affected boaters will be able to seek exemptions if waters are closed. "Any boater that would need access to those areas… could request access through the wing commander and it would be considered on a case by case basis," McCarty said.
Gainer said he's glad TAFB officials are seeking input. "I feel like we can work this out together so that everybody will understand," Gainer said. "Communication is the key and if we understand, then I think this thing will go down a whole lot smoother."
Maj. McCarty said TAFB officials will hold public town hall meetings after receiving initial input from elected officials and civic leaders. Obtaining final approval from the Corps of Engineers could take about a year.
Click here for a link to our June 2013 story.