The tropical weather season spared Northwest Florida from major storm damage for a fifth straight year, but 2010’s top story did involve a disaster — this one manmade.
A fire on the Deepwater Horizon deep-sea drilling platform in April caused an explosion that destroyed the rig, killed 11 people and ruptured a pipe that spewed an estimated five million gallons of oil and natural gas into the Gulf of Mexico until the well finally was sealed in September. Oil sheens, slicks and “tar balls” from the spill washed ashore from Louisiana to east of Panama City, causing real and perceived damage that crippled tourism and related businesses.
Petroleum giant BP accepted responsibility for the spill and made an initial commitment of $20 billion to help cover response and recovery costs. Although the well is sealed and government scientists say most of the oil has been cleaned up or disposed of by natural forces, area residents, businesses and local governments are expected to continue to negotiate with BP and recovery “czar” Ken Feinberg for years — maybe decades — to come.
The oil spill easily stands out as the area’s top story of the year. Here are nine more that helped define 2010:
The new Navarre Beach Fishing Pier opened in June and in less than six months has established itself among the area’s top attractions. The old pier was severely damaged by hurricanes Ivan and Dennis in 2004 and 2005, respectively. Plans already had been in the works for several years to lengthen the pier, so a little finagling by the Santa Rosa County Commission with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the state resulted in contractor Ed Waters and Sons building the longest pier in Florida or on the Gulf of Mexico. The cost was about $9 million, 90 percent paid by FEMA, 7.5 percent by the state and the rest by Santa Rosa County. Dorothy Slye and her brother, “Junior” Ratliff, won a county contract to operate the pier and a small bait store and food concession, as The Pier Inc.
Tony White of Navarre caught a 40-pound red fish, the first caught from the 32,000-square-foot, 1,545-foot long pier.
About 30 seniors on Navarre High School’s 2010 football team persevered through back-to-back 3-7 seasons without losing faith in one another, their Raider teammates or coaches. Their work ethic, camaraderie and composure was the foundation of a team featuring several exceptionally talented players and a flair for the dramatic to produce the greatest season in team history. Navarre finished the season 11-2, beat Pace for the first time in school history, whipped Niceville at Eagle Stadium for the Raiders’ first-ever playoff win, mounted an amazing come-from-behind playoff win against Pine
Forest, which had defeated Navarre in the regular season, and stood toe-to-toe and traded blow for blow with Tallahassee Lincoln before losing the Region 1-4A final 34-33 in triple overtime at Gene Cox Stadium in the state capital.
Senior player Ian Lockwood’s inspiring fight against brain cancer led the team twice to wear donated jerseys in his honor and several opposing schools to raise money to help Lockwood’s family and- or cancer research. Lockwood adopted the “Live Strong” motto of bicyclist Lance Armstrong, also a cancer survivor, and the slogan became a mantra of the 2010 season.
The Escambia and Santa Rosa county commissions began developing a joint resolution asking Congress to allow Escambia County to transfer ownership of Navarre Beach properties. The U.S. Department of the Interior gave Escambia County the western end of Santa Rosa Island in 1946, with the condition it not transfer title to any part of the property.
Some leaseholders in both communities want to own the property for which they now are being assessed property taxes and paying lease fees. Other residents in both counties worry transferring ownership from Escambia County could lead to the island being overdeveloped and limiting public access to the beaches and other natural resources on the island.
In part to allay those concerns, the Santa Rosa County Commission in November approved a draft resolution that includes requiring the county to preserve conservation, preservation, public, recreation or access uses on Navarre Beach, which are consistent with Santa Rosa County’s Navarre Beach Master Plan 2001 Update and preserve the parking areas at New Jersey Street, Tennessee Street, Louisiana Street, Indiana Street and Georgia Street, and on Navarre Beach. The debate on the resolution is expected to continue in 2011 before it‘s forwarded to U.S. Rep. Jeff Miller for submission to Congress..
Caught in a seemingly perpetual need for increased funding, The Holley-Navarre Fire board spent much of the year debating rate hikes. In February, the board did approve raising fire protection fees 3.8 percent based on the state’s average personal income growth from 2005-2009. That increase was expected to add about $43,000 to the department’s budget for 2010-2011, enough to hire a part-time fire safety inspector. Commissioners spent several more months considering whether to ask voters to approve a 26-percent increase, but finally decided the still-sluggish economy and the added financial impact caused by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill would make it difficult to win such a referendum. Voters last approved an increase in 2006.
Santa Rosa County has conducted fire safety inspections for the Holley-Navarre Fire District since 2001, but has scaled back its operations because of budget cuts. County officials told the district’s Board of Fire Commissioners in 2009 it would have to make other arrangements for conducting the state-required inspections. At its July meeting, the fire board approved spending about $15,000 in the budget year beginning Oct. 1 to pay a fire inspector $10-12 per hour to work 24 hours per week. The job is expected to grow as the economy improves and building activity increases.
Navarre relies heavily on its pristine beaches and crystal clear emerald waters for more than economic reasons; natural beauty helps define the community and its residents. Three issues related to protecting that water quality merited headlines this year. Santa Rosa County created special zoning to protect the well field that provides water for the Fairpoint Regional Utility System — which in turn provides water to Gulf Breeze, Holley-Navarre, Midway and East Milton systems — more than half the county’s population.
However, the county opposed two efforts to protect water quality; State Senate Bill 550 to require regular septic tank inspections at the owners’ expense and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency plans to implement controversial numeric nutrient content standards for nitrogen and phosphorous. Critics say SB 550, which likely will be repealed or amended by the Legislature this spring, unfairly forces owners whose septic tanks have shown no evidence of leaking to spend several hundred dollars every five years for the inspections. Replacing a defective septic system could cost as much as $15,000, according to some opponents. The bill, as approved last year, also puts responsibility for certifying tanks as acceptable with septic tank companies that could profit from repairing or replacing systems.
In response to a federal lawsuit, the EPA ordered the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to implement and enforce new minimum standards for nitrogen and phosphorous. The state and several utility companies have filed new federal lawsuits to stop the EPA plan. Critics say the new standards are based on flawed science, failing to consider the individual nature of each water body, and would cost billions, perhaps more than a trillion, of dollars to upgrade facilities with technology capable of meeting the new standards.