The nude beach they fondly remember is now Rosemary Beach property onto which they’re not even permitted to venture.

INLET BEACH — In 1985, then Army Capt. Bob Mitchell paid $17,500 to buy a lot overlooking the Gulf of Mexico.

“It was a working-class community in South Walton County,” Mitchell said of Inlet Beach. “I fell in love with the beaches.”

Mitchell put a trailer on the site and later built a home. There has not been a day since that he couldn’t step out into his front yard and gaze across Walton Magnolia Lane to the water.

The Inlet Beach pedestrian underpass might be right around the corner

But a plan for development along the beach south of Walton Magnolia Lane has come to fruition after 12 years, and Mitchell knows it won’t be long before huge homes will stand between him and the Gulf.

“I always knew I didn’t have enough money to protect my view of the beach, and someday I’m going to lose all of my view” he said. “I’ve had it now for 35 years, and I’ve loved every minute of it.”

Inlet Beach is about 25 years removed these days from the working class community Mitchell and a few other longtime residents recall. The nude beach they fondly remember is now Rosemary Beach property onto which they’re not even permitted to venture.

Walton County’s beaches can be hard to get to

The development of Rosemary Beach in the 1995 time frame is what old timers like Mike Gilder say “contributed an awful lot” to an explosion of high-dollar growth at Inlet Beach. And now there are million-dollar homes on either side of the fence that separates the two communities.

There isn’t a whole lot of room for development anymore on the western side of Inlet Beach, and one group’s concept for redevelopment of a lot on the Rosemary Beach border has set those living nearby on edge.

A plan hatched by managers of the Barbara R. Jackson estate to tear down an existing beachfront home and erect three five-story buildings on the lot has been nearly universally opposed by residents.

TDC alters Walton’s beach code

They showed up in force Thursday for a meeting of the Walton County Zoning Board of Adjustments and won the first skirmish of what promises to be a long battle.

The 0.59-acre lot the Jackson estate wants to develop is on a corner where Winston Lane makes a sharp turn. A popular public beach access is just west of the lot, and beyond it on the beach itself is a sign warning people against trespassing onto Rosemary Beach.

To accommodate the three-building development, an engineer for the Jackson estate asked the Zoning Board of Adjustments for a variance that would allow one of the buildings to be constructed 10 feet closer to the road than the county code dictates.

Large group vacation homes latest housing trend in Panama City Beach

Engineer Darrell Barnhill argued that allowing the 10-foot setback would eliminate any threat the building could pose to the dune behind it.

“We’re being good stewards of the environment,” he told the zoning board.

Opponents of the project used the opportunity presented by the variance request to let board members know how little they think of the entire proposal.

“They’re trying to turn sand into gold,” said Rich Jaffe, president of the Historic Inlet Beach Neighborhood Association. “One of your dictates as a board is to weigh impact on a community. I’m here to tell you the impact of this project on this community is totally negative.”

Jaffe argued that granting the variance would provide the Jackson estate a perk no one else at Inlet Beach is entitled to receive. He said allowing a building to be constructed 10 feet closer to the road could make an already dangerous turn even more dangerous for drivers, bikers and pedestrians.

Walton County Planning Director Mac Carpenter also weighed in on behalf of the opposition to the three-building project. The Planning Department staff had recommended the board deny the request.

“As it’s drawn it cannot be built consistent with the Inlet Beach Neighborhood Plan,” Carpenter said.

Walton opens first new beach access in more than a decade

He said the Winston Lane lot would support two buildings, but not the three presently planned. And he noted that the number of negative comments he’d received about the proposed development exceeded the number of notifications the variance applicant had been required to send out prior to Thursday’s meeting.

The five-story buildings being planned also concerned Carpenter. They would be constructed in a zone where structures more than one story higher than their neighbors are not permitted. Homes on the Rosemary Beach side of the planned construction are two-and-a-half stories, so the new buildings could be built no higher than three-and-a-half stories.

Inlet Beach Neighborhood Plan rules also create parking obstructions for the Winston Lane development.

GUEST COLUMN: Sharing ‘your’ beach shouldn’t be too much to ask

Barnhill said Friday that his firm, ECM, will huddle with representatives from the Jackson estate to determine how to proceed.

“We’re awaiting directions from the owner,” he said. “Until we get those, we’re at a standstill.”

Those who live in the immediate vicinity of the Jackson estate property said they’d like to see Walton County purchase the lot and use it to expand area beach access.

“To have such a cornerstone of Inlet Beach totally blocked, that wouldn’t be right,” resident John Norton said before Thursday’s meeting. “If the county were to buy the property and open it to the public, that could be incredible for Inlet Beach.”

His friend Bob Krall agreed: “That would be far and away the best option.”

Although Norton and Krall were under the impression the county had inquired about buying the Jackson estate property, Barnhill denied having spoken to anyone.

The Walton County Tourist Development Council would take the lead in negotiating any purchase of property for beach access.

“As far as I know, (that) property is not under consideration,” TDC Executive Director Jay Tusa said.

While the fate of the property on the western end on Inlet Beach remains up in the air, that of the six acres on the community’s eastern end was sealed long ago.

In 2010 and again in 2012, the Walton County Commission voted to allow development on the tract of beach extending west along Walton Magnolia Lane from the border of Camp Helen State Park.

The development was approved twice by a slim commission majority over objections from Walton Magnolia residents. Bill Chapman is the only county commissioner still on the board to have voted to approve the project in 2012. Larry Jones, the county administrator, was a county commissioner in 2010 and voted in favor of development.

Ebsco Industries, which developed Alys Beach, is overseeing the residential construction. The beachfront acreage has been owned for years by the Comer family, which once also owned the land where Camp Helen State Park now sits.

Efforts to reach an Ebsco official for comment were not successful.

Carpenter said that when the commission approved the construction of 20 homes on Walton Magnolia Lane, plans called for single-family structures of a moderate size.

That was before VRBO and AirBNB.

The homes that have thus far been built are huge and are being marketed as vacation rentals — single-family homes built with the expectation of housing many people.

One of them, a four-bed, four-bath home with a private pool advertised by 30A Escapes sleeps up to 16.

Neighbors like Mitchell, and Jaffe, as president of the neighborhood association, have many concerns about the ongoing development.

The road itself is barely wide enough for two cars to pass one another, and at this time there is only one entrance and exit to the neighborhood.

Mitchell said the road has consistently flooded during heavy rainfall, and last July 4 it was underwater to an extent that he couldn’t get his truck through for three days.

“They’re going to have to improve that road. It’s crowded now, and there’s never been a major storm that didn’t wash out that intersection at the top of the street,” Mitchell said. “With all these new houses, not to mention the big ones, there’s going to be a lot of traffic and a lot of people staying there. If we have a crisis ... .

Carpenter said the developers have plans to improve Walton Magnolia Lane by putting down an additional inch of asphalt, and a common area at the lowest point of the road will be equipped with a permeable concrete successfully used at Rosemary Beach that will absorb all of the runoff in the neighborhood.

“All of the water that comes to that lot now will still come to that lot, which is subject to flooding, but it will be temporary. And it’s not pushing the water to anywhere else, but instead actually taking the water from the other lots,” Carpenter said.

Last week, as work was getting under way to put homes on five lots at the eastern end of Walton Magnolia Lane, a crane took down small cottage that had stood on top of a long, untouched dune.

The Lupin House, as it was known, had been constructed in the late ’60s or ’70s, according to news accounts. It belonged to the Comer family, which was involved in planning the new development.

The demolition was a final gut punch to longtime residents as the inevitable development of the last stretch of pristine beach got under way.

“I’m just sorry to see it happen,” said Scott Franzen, who lives in a town home complex at the edge of the development. “To me, this is the one last beautiful place in Florida.”