Emerald Coast Wildlife Refuge moving to Santa Rosa County


“Just the peace and quiet of it all, it’s a very natural fit. This suits and exceeds the needs of the animals we care for.”

JENNIE McKEON @JennieMnwfdn

HOLLEY — The Emerald Coast Wildlife will move soon from the beach to a quiet spot in Holley Navarre.

Santa Rosa County commissioners earlier this week approved the rezoning of a donated 2.238-acre parcel on Cloptons Circle from single-family residential to active park, which allows the land to be used for recreation.

The new location will allow the refuge to build the kind of center that fits the nonprofit’s mission of “education, conservation and rehabilitation for the welfare of Florida’s natural fauna.”

“This is an opportunity to let the refuge become what it was really meant to be,” ECWR Executive Director Susan Leveille said. “To have a place for animals that is their natural habitat is exactly what we want. It’s a dream come true.”

.embed-container { position: relative; padding-bottom: 56.25%; height: 0; overflow: hidden; max-width: 100%; } .embed-container iframe, .embed-container object, .embed-container embed { position: absolute; top: 0; left: 0; width: 100%; height: 100%; }

A grand gesture

Bill and Carol Andersen have been volunteers with ECWR for more than two years, ever since Bill brought an injured animal to the refuge. Soon after, he and Carol became volunteers.

“I’ve always been a critter person,” said Bill, who now is president of the board for ECWR. “After 24 years in Air Force special operations, I like being in the business of saving lives rather than taking lives.”

Carol, who also is retired Air Force, said she was impressed with the setup of the organization and started volunteering behind the scenes. But their biggest contribution may be the 2.238 acres they’ve donated to the refuge.

It was Carol’s dream to own the property on Cloptons Circle on East Bay. For about 20 years she noticed the property. When it went on the foreclosure market two years ago, she jumped at the chance to purchase it. The original owner used the land to plant native plants and flowers. Budding blooms of azaleas are scattered around the property as well as heritage oak trees and long leaf pines, which refuge officials want to keep.

Carol said when she saw the refuge’s office on Okaloosa Island, she knew it wasn’t a good fit for the organization and decided to donate part of her property to ECWR.

“Everything’s better when you share it with somebody,” Carol said. “Why wouldn’t we want the critters to be housed out here?”

Leveille said the donation is one of the “most grand” that the nonprofit has received.

“We’ve never had anything come close,” she said. “Very few nonprofits have this happen to them. We would have never been able to achieve it without the donation.”

Serving the community

The organization has had three homes since it was founded in 1994. For the past seven years the refuge has operated out of the old Okaloosa Island Fire Station, which it leased from Okaloosa County for $1 a year.

In December 2016, the Daily News reported that the ECWR board was looking for a new location. Last summer, Okaloosa County commissioners revoked the refuge’s 4-year-old lease on 3.6 acres next to Veteran’s Park on the island, citing concerns that the refuge had begun construction on schedule. Refuge officials argued that they hadn’t had access to the parcel.

The refuge also looked at the Destin YMCA complex.

Leveille said the move out of Okaloosa County doesn’t mean the refuge will stop serving the area. For the time being, the refuge plans to keep its lease at the old fire station for a necropsy lab, where technicians examine animal carcasses.

“We still serve Okaloosa County and always will, including Santa Rosa County, Walton County, Escambia County and parts of Bay,” she said. “We are just running out of space.”

But the Navarre area is actually a perfect fit for the organization. A large number of volunteers, including Leveille, are based in Navarre. Since the new location will be open to the public, she sees future partnerships with other organizations such as the Navarre Beach Marine Science Center and the Pensacola State College campus in Midway.

“Just the peace and quiet of it all, it’s a very natural fit,” she said. “This suits and exceeds the needs of the animals we care for.”

Supporting the refuge

The Navarre community has for the most part shown its support for ECWR. Locals and organizations such as Navarre Beach Area Chamber of Commerce and Navarre Area Board of Realtors sent letters to the County Commission in support of the refuge. There were 1,300 letters in support and 13 opposed.

“I’m excited about it,” said Holley resident Donna Harvell, who owns an antique shop across the road. “I really think it’s something for our future generations, and it’s low impact to the land. It will be an asset to the area.”

Neighbors next to the site are opposed to it. Phyllis and Jim Williams, who live adjacent to the land, hired an attorney to represent their case. They’ve expressed concerns over possible noise, lighting and odors.

“I have no problem with the wildlife refuge, I do have a problem with the refuge being next door to me,” Phyllis Williams told commissioners at Monday’s meeting.

Commission Chairman and District 4 Commissioner Rob Williamson said he believed the refuge would be a good fit for the community, and that any loud noises or unpleasant smells would be subject to fines from code enforcement “like any other property owner in Santa Rosa County.”

The Andersens live about 1,000 feet from the property and walk their dog there just about every day. Addressing the concerns from neighbors, Carol said that she wouldn’t put something on the land that would negatively impact the “the quiet enjoyment” of the property.

New beginnings

With the land rezoned, the refuge can start its building plans. Phase I will be to build a rehabilitation center and an education center where the public can tour the facilities. 

Leveille said she’d like to have one-way glass that will allow people to watch animals receive care. Technicians now care for animals in a 150-square-foot space that is not open to the public.

.embed-container { position: relative; padding-bottom: 56.25%; height: 0; overflow: hidden; max-width: 100%; } .embed-container iframe, .embed-container object, .embed-container embed { position: absolute; top: 0; left: 0; width: 100%; height: 100%; }

At the Okaloosa Island location, staff often have to move things around to make room for healing animals, as well as a handful of ambassador animals that cannot be released. Those animals would have permanent homes at the new site where the public can visit.

Staff veterinarian Dr. Macy Trosclair already has begun putting together a proposed floor plan for the new medical facility.

“We do have a pretty high case load of injured birds and mammals,” she said. “It would be nice to not just have more space, but usable space.”

That first phase will have an estimated $226,000 price tag, which the refuge would like to raise with matching donations, Bill Andersen said. ECWR will start a capital campaign soon to get the word out.

“We’d love to start building tomorrow,” he said with a laugh. “The goal is to start 2018 as residents of Santa Rosa County. I think that’s very achievable.”

 For more information about the Emerald Coast Wildlife Refuge, visit emeraldcoastwildliferefuge.org.