With cobia, king and Spanish mackerel swarming around the Navarre Beach Fishing Pier Saturday, eager anglers were anxious for a hook.
However, unbeknownst to some, a handwritten sign posted at the entrance to the pier warned that the pier would close from 3 – 7 p.m. that day. There was no reason given.
When 3 p.m. rolled around, and the fishermen, including Milton resident Jerry Couey, were asked to move their fishing gear off the octagon, he refused.
“I arrived around 1:40 that afternoon to fish,” Couey said, “and that’s when I saw the sign.”
Without authorization or even an explanation from Pier Manager Dorothy Slye, Couey stood firm, fishing pole cast into the gulf.
The pier closure was due to the private wedding ceremony of Slye’s daughter, Kelly Slye, who wed Frank Merrell that afternoon. There were 102 white folding chairs set up within the octagon for guests – who reportedly did not pay to access the county-owned pier. However, Slye later said that she wrote a check for $300 for their access, though 300 people were not present.
Still, at no time was Couey, or any pier-goer, presented with formal authorization of the pier’s closure; although, Couey was offered a “six-pack of beer or a nice meal” by a Pier Bar employee if he would move his gear off the octagon.
Another employee, Carson Wells, told Couey his father was a “county official” and “authorization had been granted.” Carson Wells said he was simply doing what his father, Clifton, had told him to do.
Wells was unable to produce paperwork proving the authorization and instead, referred fishermen, Couey and pier walkers to the sign at the pier entrance.
None of Santa Rosa County’s public officials had any knowledge of the pier’s closure, which, according to the management contract, is prohibited.
“There is no provision in the contract to close the pier,” said Commission Chairman Lane Lynchard. “The public can use the pier for whatever purpose they want but not to the exclusion of other public members.”
Commissioner Jim Melvin stressed that no county employee has the authority to order people off the pier or close any part of the pier.
“Only the (Board of County Commissioners) has authority over the pier and its use,” he said.
Melvin also noted that he received numerous complaints from fishermen, and reiterated that the contract does not permit the pier operator to close the pier for private functions.
Couey did remove his fishing gear off the octagon around 4 p.m., to allow for the chairs to be set up, after Navarre resident Pat Huggins made the request. However, she told him he could continue fishing unimpeded.
Slye defended her action, saying that she had done nothing different for herself than had been done for others in the past.
According to Slye, she has allowed other private events to take place on the octagon over the last year – two weddings, a memorial service, and others – but did acknowledge the octagon was never “closed” during those events. Several requests for a list of the events, dates and number of attendees were made; no list has been provided to date.
She added that as the pier operator it is her job to “make the county money” and that she works around the fishing season to avoid conflicts with the fishermen.
“During the dead season, I will try to accommodate requests.” Slye commented.
She stated that she did not seek approval for the wedding, nor was any authorization provided for the day of the wedding.
“The contract doesn’t say I can’t have a wedding.” she said.
During the wedding set-up, roughly 15 fishermen were asked to relocate from the octagon area and were offered free entrance onto the pier for the following day, Sunday.
Justin Barnes of Fort Walton Beach was unmoved.
“I heard the Spanish mackeral was running,” he said, “and I specifically came here to fish today.”
However, while Slye approved the fee waivers, only members of the Board of County Commissioners are allowed to authorize fee waivers, according to the management contract.
Later, Sheila Walker, a family friend, stated she paid for all fee-waivers, “out of my own pocket.” No number of how many were granted was provided.
At one point during the wedding set-up, two young children were playing and watching the few remaining fishermen attempt to pull in a good-size cobia. The children were ordered by staff to “watch the runway” and were relegated to half of the octagon perimeter: the chairs, candles and runway in the center, a harpist, and video camera consumed most of the octagon space.
As the wedding start time drew closer, the pressure put upon the remaining fishermen increased. Pressure came from staff, and family and friends of the wedding party. One staff member stated, “We accommodate you all the time,” adding, “you should show some respect.”
While the fishermen where lectured about respect, one fisherman, Jim Henrichsen, was having his Dodge Dakota trailer hitch used without permission. According to Henrichsen, after fishing since 6a.m., he left at 3:30. When he got to his truck, parked near the bottom of the pier ramp, his trailer hitch was missing, but the pin was on the bumper. Upon hearing his words of anger, a woman Henrichsen noticed as being from the wedding party, ran up to him saying, “I was only borrowing it.” She needed a hitch to push a trailer full of chairs up the ramp, and used Henrichsen’s without permission, because it was the right size.
Commissioner Jim Williamson said the pier is listed as a “fishing and walking pier,” not a multi-purpose pier. He also said that he had no prior knowledge of the scheduled closure and nothing was brought before the commissioners prior to the wedding.
While most had left the octagon, a few remained.
“These people are having a wedding,” said Phil Shelton, a Navarre resident and wedding guest. “What’s 20 feet?”
When asked if he paid the $1 pier admission fee, “No I didn’t,” he said, “but I’ve paid plenty of money to come out here.”
Approximately 20 minutes before the wedding started and during the wedding, only a couple of fishermen remained on the octagon, but they stopped fishing. Couey quietly left the octagon entirely, moving approximately 30 feet down the pier walkway.
Even after the wedding, the fishermen could not resume fishing because of the photo session that followed. It was well after 7 p.m. before all fishing could resume.
When the wedding was over, Barnes was approached by a wedding guest and thanked for not fishing during the ceremony. He was then invited to the reception.
“I missed four Spanish Mackerel because I couldn’t set the hook because I had people all around me,” he replied. “I don’t think it’s right and I’m not happy.”
A reception followed at the Pier Bar and Grill, where liquor, wine and beer was served to guests. However, according to the Florida Department of Alcoholic Beverages and Tobacco, the establishment’s 2COP liquor license allows only beer and wine to be sold or served. Even if not sold, any alcohol other than wine and beer cannot be stored or served.
The bride later said that she felt her “wedding was ruined,” because of the attention given and the criticism of the wedding.
Slye believes that criticism of the octagon closure for her daughter’s wedding and the news coverage is a “personal vendetta.”
Hunter Walker, the County Administrator, stated that he had “no knowledge of the commissioners approving any request for a pier closure, verbal or written.” He added that “It is a public facility for public use.”
When asked if another citizen would be able to have a wedding of approximately 150 guests, Walker replied, “The sheriff’s office would likely be called.”
The timing of the pier closure coincided with the Sandsculpting Fesitval – a highly publicized and marketed event aimed to bring tourists to Navarre Beach. The event is hosted by the Santa Rosa County Tourist Development Council, which Slye is a board member of.