A St. Augustine resident for just over a decade, Billy Zeits has spent the last 10 years working to make the Nation’s Oldest City a better place to live. He is the Assistant Director of St. Johns County Parks & Recreation, Vice President and Co-founder of Keepers of the Coast, an area nonprofit organization focused on wildlife education and conservation of sea turtles, and involved in the local chapter of PechaKucha, a presentation style event where community members speak in front of a few hundred of their peers. Born in Norristown, Penn. and raised in Florida, Zeits graduated from the University of Central Florida with a degree in political science and ecology. Today, he’s working towards making sure that both tourists and residents have clean and pristine coastal environments to enjoy. St. Augustine Social caught up with Zeits to chat about his volunteer efforts, the future of Keepers of the Coast and the changing landscape of our city.
How has Keepers of the Coast progressed since it was established in 2007?
We’ve identified times and locations in the community where we can bring people together to build a sense of community around the beaches through special events including the Sea Turtle Festival and the beach cleanups. The diversity of people was really what we were looking for when we started, and we see that at our events. We see them [events] growing and we see them be multi-generational, which we feel is successful.
How many beach cleanups do you do per year?
Organized by Keepers of the Coast, we do anywhere between five and eight. And we get lots of requests from corporations and Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts groups to facilitate their beach cleanups. I think throughout the course of the year, it probably averages somewhere between 10 and 12, annually since 2007.
Is Keepers of the Coast solely dedicated to St. Johns County or have you expanded to other areas in Florida?
We started in St. Augustine and we’ve been looking to expand the message that the beaches are there for everybody. And regardless of how you choose to use it, that we all want it to be the same way when we get there. I think the best part of what we do is that when people are out there doing beach cleanups, people who are at the beach are seeing that and sort of subconsciously participating. Although that’s not why they came to the beach, they see other people doing it and whether it’s guilt or desire, they end up cleaning up the beach, too.
What would you like the future of Keepers of the Coast to look like?
I think if you go 10 years fast-forward, I’d like to see it as the inspiration for a community that are unconsciously stewards of their beach. And when people came to St. Johns County or Jacksonville Beach or Hammock Beach or anywhere along the East Coast that we were a part of creating an initiative that people didn’t just walk away from the beach when they left. That they took something more than what they brought with them and that they are genuinely interested every time that they went there to make it better than before.
You’re also involved in the local chapter of PechaKucha. Tell me about that.
I do whatever the A-team tells me: Amy [Robb], Angie [Fay Ullmann] and Ari [Sufalko]. They do a majority of the groundwork. I went to the first one, they asked me to speak and then I offered to help. At that point, they made me the MC, which for me was a real honor and I was really excited because it’s a scary experience. To try and get people to alleviate their fear and deliver their message was really exciting for me.
How do you feel about where St. Augustine is as a city right now?
We’re in a good growth of people staying here – people who live here staying here and people investing money here to make it the way they want it. Not another French fry and ice cream place. Not that there’s anything wrong with French fries and ice cream. But more like something unique, something that somebody built – more of an artistic experience than I think there was 10 years ago.
As a county employee, what do you think of the state of tourism in St. Augustine?
We’re going to be a victim of our own success. I think you realize that the tourist who comes here for two or three days is only going to invest X amount of dollars. It’s really difficult for the people who live here to take their wallet out for something that they’re used to. They don’t want to pay when they go to the beach, they don’t want to pay when they park to go downtown, they don’t want to pay to build a new bike trail or sidewalk. They want to have the life the way that they want it and the impact of the tourists is changing how we have to live here as residents.
What can we do?
There is a variety of ways the sales tax was discussed – an additional tax like the tourism tax or the bed tax is a potential solution. Other communities do things like on the hotel bill, “Would you like to pay a dollar for the beach? Check yes or no.” Public trails or conservation, check yes or no. That happens other places. We just haven’t grown up there yet and we haven’t put our elected officials in a place where they know all the options to make a decision. We need to do a couple of things. We need to find some fees that are digestible to residents that build infrastructure. We need to create economic opportunity and increase the wage of the people who live here, so they can afford the type of communities that we’re allowing to be built.