Lake Drive residents upset over rezoning of Fort Walton Beach neighborhood park

Tom McLaughlin
Northwest Florida Daily News

FORT WALTON BEACH — Residents of the Lake Drive neighborhood left Tuesday's City Council meeting less than satisfied with their elected leaders, who voted to allow the clearing of a park for residential construction.

The council voted 6-1, with David Schmidt opposed, to rezone the property at 329 Lake Drive to residential, a status that will allow Watree Construction to build six homes on the almost 2-acre parcel. The developer made the $467,000 purchase of the property contingent on obtaining the zoning change. 

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The Fort Walton Beach City Council has rezoned park property on Lake Drive adjacent to Beal Memorial Cemetery to allow for single-family homes. The council previously had declared the land surplus.

Many who attended the meeting and spoke against the rezoning said they felt they'd been hoodwinked by the council and city staff.

"I'm just shocked. I don't understand," said Farrah Kitchens, whose husband Bryan said they had bought a house next to the park six months ago after being told by a Realtor the land next to them would always remain a green space.

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The Fort Walton Beach City Council's decision to rezone park property on Lake Drive to allow for single-family homes has upset adjacent property owners.

The biggest complaint from the several subdivision residents who spoke against the rezoning was that they were not given sufficient notice of the pending sale. They said notifications went to very few residents and arrived too late to do them any good.

They also said that no signage was posted on the property to alert them of a possible zoning change. That charge was denied by city officials, and a banner about the size of a for sale sign was on the property the day the vote to rezone was taken.

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"This is the backroom sale of our neighborhood nook," Farrah Kitchens told the council before the vote. "You're looking for a deal, you're looking for what serves you and you're looking for revenue."

Bryan Kitchens told the City Council that if he had been notified in time of the pending rezoning and sale, he would have offered to buy a portion of the park property adjacent to his home.

The Kitchenses and their neighbors weren't the only ones taken aback by the way the city handled the transaction. 

The Fort Walton Beach Local Planning Agency voted 6-1 on June 7 to reject a staff recommendation to give its approval to the rezoning. Board members said they also had serious questions with the way the sale of the property was managed.

A park on Lake Drive in Fort Walton Beach has been rezoned for single-family homes. The City Council previously declared the property surplus.

"Basically you have taken a park and changed it to residential land without letting anyone know you were going to do that," board member Sam Kincaid commented ahead of the vote. "It kind of feels like you've kept this a secret for a while." 

City officials were not required to take as many steps to notify Lake Drive residents of their intention to sell off the property because it was one of seven city parcels that had been deemed surplus. 

As Planning Supervisor Tim Gibson told the Local Planning Agency board, when the City Council voted in June to declare the acreage surplus, they gave City Manager Michael Beedie the go-ahead to market the parcels for sale. 

The city used its real estate consultant, Realty House, to advertise the Lake Drive property to prospective buyers through development industry-oriented publications.

A fence separates a city-owned property from Beal Memorial Cemetery. The Fort Walton Beach City Council has rezoned the parcel to allow for single-family homes.

It also ran ads in the local newspaper, a tactic Kincaid scoffed at. 

"Are we back to a newspaper as the only way people are notified? We're living in 2021," she said.

Gibson agreed with Local Planning Agency members that the notifications the city provided prior to the rezoning and sale of its surplus properties were probably not sufficient. But he argued that the removal of surplus properties was something that hadn't been undertaken by the city for years, so the process was a new one.

"I can't speak for the council, but I don't think they were trying to sneak something through," he said. 

Beedie defended how the rezoning and sale were handled. He said the city had actually done more than it was required to make the public aware that the Lake Drive property was on the market.

"We did everything that the process requires us to do. We even had additional meetings," he said. 

On June 2 of last year, the city held workshops at which the council discussed possibly declaring 10 properties as surplus, and a week later decided at another public meeting to declare seven of those parcels surplus, Beedie said.

Again in August, when the contracts were brought up, city staff followed all required procedures, Beedie said, and properly presented notices to residents living within 300 feet of the Lake Drive park.

A motorist drives past a public notification sign for a city-owned property on Lake Drive adjacent to the Beal Memorial Cemetery. The City Council on Tuesday voted to rezone the parcel to allow for single-family homes.

"The council dictates what we sell and how the property is sold," Beedie said. "At the meeting we were directed to have Realty House market these properties by traditional means."

Beedie estimated that each of the six new homes will occupy about 2,000 square feet and sell for between $350,000 and $400,000. The sales will generate property taxes, and the new residences will be a small addition to a community woefully short of "housing assets."

"Six new houses are six more houses," he said. 

The Lake Drive land deal will come before the Fort Walton Beach City Council at least a couple more times before construction. Watree must secure a development order, and approval will be needed for at least one zoning change for an individual lot and any future land use changes, Beedie said.