Now that snowbirds are starting to head home, Destin is preparing for a new influx of visitors.
College students have made the Destin area their home during their break for some time. It’s easy to spot them on the beach with their school flags waving as they throw Frisbees back and forth and snap selfies. Most of them are drinking, but not all of them are the legal drinking age.
In more recent years, law enforcement has started to heavily patrol the beach and even implemented a “zero tolerance” policy of underage drinking. Sgt. Joseph Fulghum of Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office said he noticed an increase in spring breakers around 2015.
That was when Panama City Beach officials decided to ban alcohol consumption on the beach during the month of March after a disturbing video went viral of a young woman being raped on the beach.
“At that time, college websites starting blowing up, telling people to come to Destin,” Fulghum said. “We wanted to create a deterrent, and so far it’s been pretty successful.”
Before the “zero tolerance” policy, underage drinkers were handed a notice to appear (NTA), but over time they started to become a joke, Fulghum said. Now, all violators are taken to jail. Last year, OCSO arrested 444 college students. The county’s Tourist Development Council provides funding for additional deputies during the season.
OSCO checks college websites to check spring break dates, paying close attention to the colleges in the southeast. And they work to get the message out about their policies.
Fulghum said the intent isn’t to dissuade college students from visiting Destin, but to keep visitors safe.
“We want people to come here,” he said. “We just want them to come here in a law-abiding manner. We do get some upset parents calling us to complain about their kid being arrested. But the compliments we get from locals and tourists alike exceeds the complaints.”
The effort seems to be working from a public safety standpoint. Reports of fights, sexual battery, and property damage have decreased “quite a bit,” Fulghum said.
“And from the medical side, the response to distressed swimmers has decreased,” he added.
City of Destin also does its part to prepare. Alongside deputies, code enforcement officers are patrolling the area. Code Compliance Manager Joey Forgione and three more code enforcement officers work “unilaterally” with the Sheriff’s Office.
“Code is going to do code,” Forgione said, who previously worked in law enforcement. “But we can be the eyes and ears (for law enforcement).”
Like OSCO, the city checks in with property management companies to get a reading on how full rentals are. With Panama City still in recovery mode after Hurricane Michael, Forgione said they’re expecting a “pretty heavy season.”
On January 22, the city amended its short-term rental ordinance to place new requirements on property owners. The ordinance requires owners to register with the city and appoint someone to act as the “responsible party” for the property. More importantly, the ordinance put a cap on the number of occupants to each short term rental. Short term rentals are not limited to two people per bedroom, plus an additional four with an overall cap at 24 people. Rental agreements made before Jan. 22 are exempted from the new rule.
Forgione said the ordinance was “complaint driven” and addresses common problems.
“It’s a quality of life issue,” he said. “Residents are impacted by (spring break). This helps regulate things like trash, parking and noise complaints.”