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Eglin's East Pass Beach Area 'Redneck Beach' near Destin remains off limits to the public

Tony Judnich
Northwest Florida Daily News

DESTIN — Eglin Air Force Base officials have no intention of reopening Eglin’s once highly popular East Pass Beach Area.

“It’s permanently closed,” Mike Spaits, spokesman for Jackson Guard, the Resource Management Section at Eglin, said Monday.

The beach area, lovingly referred to by many people as “Redneck Beach,” extends from the Marler Bridge and the large "Welcome to Destin" billboard south to the west jetty on the eastern tip of Santa Rosa Island in unincorporated Okaloosa County. In the past, it was frequented by many people who like to visit the adjacent Crab Island.

More:Okaloosa hikes Crab Island vendor fees

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This long strand of beach at the southwest end of the Marler Bridge is located on Air Force property. It was closed in May 2020.

Last May, however, 96th Test Wing Commander Brig. Gen. Scott Cain declared the East Pass Beach Area “permanently closed” because many visitors were misusing it.

More:Destin Councilman picks up truckload of trash from Eglin beach area (PHOTOS)

Reasons for the closure cited by Eglin officials at the time included an incompatible and unsafe blend of beachgoers and moving vessels along the shoreline, vehicular traffic traveling in the wrong direction on the shoulder of U.S. Highway 98, vehicles being parked on the shoulder of U.S. 98 and the beach area, illegal commercial activity taking place by water-bound vendors and an inability to fund adequate solutions to safety and liability issues.

More:Eglin commander declares popular Destin beach area ’permanently closed’

Concrete barriers that were erected to block vehicles from getting into the beach area and to prevent unsafe parking on the shoulder of the highway remain in place.

“Part of this decision is to ensure, to the greatest extent possible, the safety of the users as well as ensuring illegal commercial activity does not occur on federal land,” Eglin officials stated last spring.

Concrete barriers block access to the East Pass Beach Area on Air Force property at the southwest end of the Marler Bridge.

The season for many businesses that rent personal watercraft, pontoon boats and other types of vessels starts in March, which also is when many colleges and universities go on spring break. Schools in the Okaloosa County School District go on their break the week of April 19.

But with Eglin's position unchanged, students and people still won’t be allowed to visit the East Pass Beach Area.

Several months before it was closed, Destin officials had briefly floated the idea of trying to obtain a long-term lease of the beach area from the federal government to help maintain it.

“The city of Destin will always seek opportunities to assist our residents and visitors to enjoy our natural resources,” Destin spokeswoman Catherine Card said Wednesday. “As you know, (the Eglin East Pass Beach Area) is outside of the city’s jurisdictional limits and no further action has been taken at this time” by the city toward possibly leasing the parcel.

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A few months before the beach area was closed, county commissioners had briefly expressed interest in talking with Eglin officials about the county possibly helping with its management.

To date, though, “We have not been officially approached by anyone regarding that property, and we don’t expect to be in negotiations with anyone about that property,” Spaits said.

County Commission Chairwoman Carolyn Ketchel, whose District 2 territory includes the East Pass Beach Area, said Wednesday that she doesn’t think the county will further pursue trying to help oversee the property.

Parker Destin carries out a handful of trash on a stretch of U.S. Highway 98 near the Coast Guard station.

“It’s federal property and we have enough land to manage ourselves," Ketchel said. “I accept the decision that Eglin Air Force Base has made.”

She didn’t seem surprised that the beach area remains off limits to the public.

“People would empty their coolers there,” Ketchel said. Eglin officials “would have to send out people to clean it up all the time.”

Two marsh ponds lie near the East Pass Beach Area.

Trespassing has occurred at the beach area since its closure, said Spaits, but he didn’t know if anyone had been cited.

“I do know our security forces and the Sheriff’s Office have had to ask some of the trespassers to leave, and they have,” he said. “We patrol it as much as we can. We do our best to check on it, especially on busy weekends.”

According to state law, trespassers could be charged with a first-degree misdemeanor and assessed a fine of up to $1,000.