Controversial Miramar Beach 321-unit apartment proposal heads to Walton commissioners

Jim Thompson
Northwest Florida Daily News

FREEPORT — In a frequently contentious meeting that saw a number of Miramar Beach residents all but beg them not to do so, the Walton County Planning Commission voted Thursday to allow plans for a 321-apartment mixed-use project on U.S. Highway 98 to move forward to the Walton County Board of County Commissioners for a final decision.

"We're killing those people," Planning Commissioner Dan Cosson told his colleagues after the vote as the Freeport meeting room crowded with opponents of the Botanic Miramar project was clearing out.

Much of the criticism from nearby residents focused on concerns about the traffic that the new development would bring to U.S. 98 and neighborhood streets, as well as concerns about how the development might affect stormwater runoff in the area.

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More:'Important for us to get the project right': Review of 321-apartment development continues

Cosson, along with fellow Planning Commissioner Fred Tricker, voted against sending the project forward to the county commission.

Voting in favor were Planning Commission Chairman Lee Perry and members Tom Babcock, Barbara Brooke, Michael Harbin and Tanner Peacock.

During the meeting and at the time of the vote, Perry and the other four Planning Commission members noted that the body's role is solely to determine whether the proposal met provisions of the county's land development code and comprehensive development plan.

Throughout the meeting, without providing specifics, Cosson alleged that the Miramar Beach area had become what he called at one point a "dumping ground for (development) projects."

"We keep approving poor projects that don't help your situation. In fact it exasperates your situation," Cosson alleged, speaking directly to opponents of Botanic Miramar.

He found a receptive audience, which included Donna Johns, a Miramar Beach resident concerned, among other things, that Botanic Miramar — which is also slated to include a 5,000-square-foot convenience store/gas station, a 4,209-square-foot fast-food restaurant, and 16,544 square feet of retail space — would force additional traffic onto neighborhood streets.

Twenty-five acres of the Golf Garden property in Miramar Beach is the proposed site for a controversial mixed-use development that includes 321 apartments.

Johns, like others at the meeting, also lamented the county's recent decision not to purchase the entire Golf Garden property for use as recreational space for Miramar Beach. The county did purchase part of the tract, which now will sit behind Botanic Miramar if the project gets final approval.

Johns also voiced concerns about plans by the developers, Atlanta-based Davis Development and The Garden of Destin Inc., to reserve 64 apartments for people with moderate incomes, such as people like teachers and emergency responders, in Walton County.

According to information presented at Thursday's meeting, rental prices for qualified moderate-income residents of Botanic Miramar would be $1,395 monthly for an efficiency apartment, $1,494 for a one-bedroom apartment and $1,791 for a two-bedroom apartment.

Noting the development's proximity to the Okaloosa County line, Johns was skeptical that the benefit of affordable housing would accrue to Walton County. "It's right there on the line, and you know darn well there are going to be people (living there but) working in Okaloosa County.

"I can't stress enough that this area is families, just tons and tons of families, and that area is stressed to the max," Johns added, noting that residents had hoped that the Golf Garden property would become an area of green space for the community, which is jammed with commercial and residential development.

"We've got to start watching out for Miramar Beach. We really do," Johns said. "We've got to stop all this growth."

Also speaking out against the development was Miramar Beach resident Laurie Echols, who was worried that the apartments might end up with more residents than they were designed to hold.

"Who's going to monitor having six, eight or 10 people in those places," Echols asked, before telling the Planning Commission, "Y'all can't pass everything that comes through."

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Much of the rest of the more than three hours of discussion comprised representatives of the development team working through public concerns about traffic, parking, stormwater control and the moderate-income housing aspects of the plan.

"I really feel for the folks that live down there in that part of Miramar Beach," Tricker said prior to his vote in comments that also referenced a county decision not to purchase the entire Golf Garden project.

Tricker based much of his opposition on an eventual plan to link the development with nearby Walton Way, which in his view validated neighborhood concerns about an influx of traffic onto their streets.

"I think it's a big safety issue," Tricker said. "if we approve this, that road's going to get built."

Some Planning Commission members who voted to send the Botanic Miramar proposal to the County commission for a final decision expressed reservations. 

An aerial photograph includes the 25.35-acre tract along U.S. Highway 98 where a 321-apartment mixed-use development has been proposed.

Harbin, for instance, while acknowledging that development is crowding Miramar Beach, said that "the i's have been dotted, the t's have been crossed."

He also noted that members of the public often don't have the professional credentials required to rebut arguments made by developers.

"We can't just take the public's comments as professional ... evidence," Harbin said, even as he wondered aloud whether the people targeted for moderate-income rentals at Botanic Miramar would, in fact, be able to afford the rents.  

Brooke noted prior to her vote that "if it (Botanic Miramar) meets the (land development) code ... we don't have the authority to turn it down." 

"I don't like it, either," Babcock sad before adding that "sometimes you have to hold your nose and vote."

Perry reminded the audience that they would have an additional opportunity to voice opposition to Botanic Miramar when it comes to the County Commission in the next few weeks.

"We see a lot of stuff that comes through here that we may not like," said Perry, who noted that Planning Commission has to rely on the county planning staff and on representatives of developers in weighing decisions.

"We're not put on this board as expert witnesses," Perry said.