Controversial Walton townhome project heads toward approval; neighbors voice concern

Jim Thompson
Northwest Florida Daily News

SANTA ROSA BEACH — Plans for a controversial six-townhome development — all of which are likely to become short-term vacation rental houses — on a little more than 0.75 acres on Walton County Highway 30A appear to be headed toward approval.

The county's Technical Review Committee (TRC), chaired by county Planning Director Mac Carpenter, voted unanimously recently to give Carpenter the authority to issue a development order for the project, located northwest of Blue Mountain Beach across from Draper Lake.

Earlier:Residents concerned Draper Lake townhome development will be overbuilt, unsafe

But under terms of the motion for approval, any approval by Carpenter must be conditioned on the developer, Draper Townhomes LLC, meeting with neighbors to discuss potential improvements to Blue Pine Boulevard. Draper Townhomes was incorporated in June of last year, with an office in Santa Rosa Beach, shortly before the project began making its way through the county review process.

Blue Pine Boulevard runs on the west side of the proposed project and provides access to the largely single-family neighborhood behind it, whose residents have been vocal in their opposition to the townhomes.

The outlined area of this map shows the site of a proposed six-townhome development off Walton County Road 30A northwest of Blue Mountain Beach.

The project is classified as a minor development, and thus does not face review by either the Walton County Planning Commission or the Walton County Board of County Commissioners. It has been in front of the TRC repeatedly over the past several months.

As a result of public and committee concerns, the project has changed somewhat in scope. Most notably, the original proposal for nine townhomes was whittled down to the six. 

But nearby property owners at the most recent meeting remained concerned about the height of the structures, contending that they should be considered four stories rather than three stories, as outlined in the county building code.

Last month: Walton County to take yet another look at 30A townhomes proposal

That code does not include the bottom story of the structures in its count of the number of stories because that story will not be an enclosed space. According to plans for the project, each story comprises 1,440 square feet, for a total of 5,760 square feet with 4,320 square feet of living space.

Carpenter, though, was skeptical at the meeting that the bottom floor of the townhomes would remain open. As a result, he got an assurance from local real estate attorney Stephen Tatum, representing Draper Townhomes, that legal declarations would ensure the bottom floor remained open and thus not usable as living space.

"We're willing to put into the covenants, conditions and restrictions that the bottom floor will not be closed in," Tatum said.

'We've struck a nerve'

Tatum's presence at the meeting was noted by Barbara Morano, who appears on behalf of the South Walton Community Council at many government meetings. 

"I'd like to welcome the attorney to this party," Morano said. "When I see an attorney, I know we've struck a nerve."

Discussion of the number of floors in the townhomes precipitated a brief exchange between Carpenter and Tatum regarding the plans for the structures. The discussion came against a backdrop of an ongoing county effort, spurred by community resistance to large short-term vacation rental houses, to more tightly regulate those structures.

The area around Draper Lake off Walton County Road 30A has been a focus of development in recent years. The latest proposal, a six-townhome project across 30A from the lake, appears headed toward approval.

"These are likely to be short-term rentals?" Carpenter asked Tatum, who hedged his answer by saying they would "potentially" be short-term rentals, "now that we're down from nine to six."

A skeptical Carpenter suggested that the townhomes "probably always would have been (short-term rentals), given the market in South Walton" where growing numbers of tourists visit.

In other comments Wednesday, Carpenter suggested that community concern over the height of the Draper Townhomes structures likely will prompt some discussion of applying two different standards for counting the stories of buildings in the county.

'Genesis of change'

"This is probably going to be the genesis of changing that in the land development code to where we look at stories one way in the building code for the purposes of life safety, and we look at stories in a different way in the land development code for the purposes of compatibility," Carpenter said.

On the issue of compatibility, the Draper Townhomes project is to be located adjacent to a neighborhood comprising single-story residences, few of which are short-term vacation rentals.

Throughout discussion at the meeting, Carpenter pushed Tatum and other representatives of the project toward additional engagement with the neighborhood to improve the plans, including a thinly veiled suggestion that he could delay the development.

"I don't have a lot of room" in terms of directing adjustments to the proposal, Carpenter said, "but I've got some time."

Carpenter added that he was taking a long-term view of the potential implications of decisions on the project.

"Once this is done, it'll be done for the next 20 years, possibly more than that," he said. "I just want us to do the best job we can."

As discussion wound down, Carpenter said he wasn't opposed to the project, but he also stressed that it would comply with the county's land development code.

"There's no question about whether or not there's going to be a development on this property," Carpenter said. "Something is going to happen here, and it's going to be consistent with whatever the land development code allows. Now we're getting down to a reasonable size project. ... This project has come a long way, and it's almost at the end (of the approval process) here."