CARYVILLE — Federal buyout of the flood-ravaged land in Caryville seemed like a godsend, but town leadership feels the assistance is stifling town growth 20 years later.

The Town of Caryville had grasped at any possible means of generating revenue to keep the town afloat financially in recent years, whether or not the income source was permissible.

“Your system is revenue starved,” said Town Attorney Jerry Miller. “The only consistent revenue you have outside of what comes to you from the state is your water system and garbage collection, and those are proprietary funds that are designed only to carry the financial obligation of that system.”

The town council was acutely aware of Miller’s statement about the town’s plight in the April 11 meeting. Utilities income was not cutting it to keep the town in business after the flood of 1994 took the town’s population from about 1,500 residents down to less than 300 people today. Despite a tiny population, the town has strived to maintain its status as a freestanding municipality.

The town ekes out an existence by collecting nominal franchise fees from businesses that have come and gone in the community and drawing revenue from leasing out land for hunting, livestock use, timber harvesting and selling off resources from a sandpit.

The problem is this is not what Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) had in mind when it purchased land from the town and its homeowners through the Hazard Mitigation Assistance program and returned the land to the town.

“The purpose of the acquisition of the land (by FEMA) was not to generate revenue,” said Steve Martin, state floodplain manager. 

FEMA’s assistance was conditional, requiring the town to maintain compliance with proper floodplain management on 500 acres of open land for public use. The cash-strapped town eventually realized the land could generate multiple streams of income through activities FEMA made an aggressive move to investigate two years ago.

According to FEMA’s report on deed restriction violation, those activities include the sale of sand through open-pit mining, the sale of timber with clear-cut harvesting of trees and removal of vegetation, leasing land for hunting, deposition of concrete rubble from a demolished federally constructed bridge, storage of asphalt millings for future use by the town, and the allowance of a commercial multi-chamber fuel tank on the property. FEMA also said the fuel tank did not appear to be adequately anchored to prevent flotation or protected to prevent flood damage.

FEMA’s highest priority when visiting the town two years ago to inspect land use issues was to get the town back into compliance with deed restrictions. One reliable revenue stream for the town had been timber harvesting. Problems surfaced when residents complained about losing century oaks in the community. Furthermore, Martin told the council in 2015 that clear cutting the trees made the land more susceptible to fires and moving flood currents.

The town was even left wondering if construction of the open-air Caryville Flea Market violated permissible land use. The flea market brings a pop of economic activity to the town each year by participating in Flea Across Florida, when dozens of vendors set up in Caryville to make a buck at Florida’s biggest yard sale event in towns dotted along nearly 300 miles of U.S. 90.  

The town currently has very few ways to generate revenue outside of the recently revived Worm Fiddlin’ Festival and occasionally renting out the community center for events.

Becky Pate, coordinator of this year’s Worm Fiddlin’ Festival, said vendors are expressing interest in the May 6 event that’s gaining a boost from a Washington County Tourist Development Council grant to help with advertising the event.

Martin said deed restrictions do not specifically prohibit commercial activity on the land and that the simple flea market structure passed FEMA’s inspection two years ago because it is not a permanent installation. The real issue was that neither the Town of Caryville or Washington County had issued permits for any activity on the floodplain. FEMA gave the town an ultimatum to come into compliance with the original deed restrictions or face hefty fines.

But that did not override the town’s need to survive. Some of the town leadership still questions why Caryville is not allowed to sell a natural resource.

“The town had the opportunity to sell some sand – there’s an old sandpit on FEMA land,” said Council Chairman Millard French in a meeting April 11.

Miller reminded the council that deed restrictions prohibit this sort of activity.

“What’s the difference if we have a flea market on FEMA land and two places we lease this farm land that’s FEMA land? What’s the difference there?” Chambers asked the attorney.

That is not the town’s only obstacle. The activity alarming FEMA the most was word of the town leasing land for private lessees for hunting.

Resident Ashley Pate asked the council for an update on his request to lease land from the town for personal use to hunt the property. Miller said any such lease probably does not conform with the FEMA restrictions and would require a sound land management plan before a request would receive state approval. FEMA denied prior hunting lease requests due to the town’s inability to ensure environmental and wildlife protection acts.

The council made loose attempts to balance the town’s need for revenue and have become frustrated with the roadblocks.

“I’m going to suggest to the council that we give it (the land) back to FEMA,” said Chambers.

Miller quickly interjected that the council had the option to cede its ownership and jurisdiction of the land, but would not get to decide which entity could take over. He added it would likely adversely affect the citizens and the community’s eligibility for flood insurance.

“You don’t have the money to regulate these FEMA restrictions,” said Miller.

Making matters worse, Miller said the town’s charter prohibits an ad valorem tax. If it did have one, it was not likely to generate much revenue due to exemptions available to property owners.

For now, the council is navigating a long road to stability and is hopeful of regaining independence.

Martin stands by FEMA’s recommendation to the town to build a plan for how public land would be used based on input from the community.

“Some systematic way of managing the land would be desirable,” said Martin.