'Great concerns' about 'monster house' subdivision proposed for south Walton County

Jim Thompson
Northwest Florida Daily News

SANTA ROSA BEACH — A development proposal that would put eight multiple-story 12-bedroom short-term vacation rental units — each with more than 5,000 square feet of living space — on a 2.5-acre tract on Sea Croft Drive east of Walton County Road 393 near beachside Walton County Road 30A must return to the county's Technical Review Committee (TRC) next month for further consideration.

"I have great concerns about this one," Walton County Planning Director Mac Carpenter, who chairs the TRC, told Bryan Osborn of Anderson Engineering, the Destin firm working with the developer on the project.

The proposal from Seacroft Holdings LLC, a corporation registered in Florida in December with a Panama City Beach mailing address, comes as the county is working through proposed amendments to its land development code aimed at addressing "monster houses" — local shorthand for massive short-term vacation rental properties like those proposed for the Sea Croft Drive tract — that can in some cases sleep as many as a few dozen people.

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County planners have been working for months on the proposed amendments, including gathering public comment on strategies to deal with the issue as such construction has proliferated across the county. Most recently, public opinion on the outsized houses was galvanized when an 18-bedroom structure began rising on a small tract off of Scenic Gulf Drive in Miramar Beach.

The Walton County Planning Commission last month recommended that the Walton County Board of County Commissioners approve a set of changes to the land development code relating to monster houses, as proposed by the county's planning staff.

Among the proposed changes are a requirement that short-term vacation rental hosts register annually with the county, with their properties subject to inspection; a requirement that someone be named responsible for the property and be readily available in case of an emergency or other problem; limiting occupancy to one person per 150 square feet of gross floor area and mandating one on-site parking space for every 600 square feet of living space.

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The proposed amendments also would establish an enhanced review of larger short-term vacation rental structures under building and design standards that would aim at compatibility with the surrounding neighborhood.

The County Commission is set to consider the changes at its June 27 meeting. A final vote, though, will come only after two commission meetings, both of which will offer opportunities for public comment. 

This map show the Walton County tract where a subdivision of short-term vacation rental housing has been proposed. The developer will be back in front of the county's Technical Review Committee next month to address concerns about the proposal.

In the meantime, the Technical Review Committee — representatives of various county government departments — voted Wednesday to send the Seacroft Holdings proposal back to the developer to address unresolved comments from county staff members on the proposal for the Sea Croft Drive tract, dubbed Pearl Place by the developer.

In effect, the TRC's action continues consideration of the Pearl Place proposal until the committee's June 15 meeting. Carpenter noted that the committee can "continue" its consideration of development proposals a number of times.

But while the Pearl Place proposal has been placed into the county's planning process in advance of any changes to the land development code regarding monster houses, there are some county development provisions with which it will have to comply regardless, in terms of life safety issues and parking, according to Kristen Shell, planning manager with the Planning Department.

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At the TRC meeting, Carpenter told Osborn, "It's up to you and your applicant (Seacroft Holdings LLC) as to whether or not you want to design according to what the law is going to be." Carpenter's phrasing reflected that it was the County Commission that last year directed county planners to begin working to tighten regulation of massive short-term rental houses. 

"I just want you to know what you're getting into," Carpenter told Osborn.  

Carpenter added that the plan for Pearl Place "looks problematic to me at first glance," and suggested that the developer "may want to consider smaller units" for the tract.

The TRC also heard comments from Barbara Morano, representing the South Walton Community Council. Saying she didn't believe nearby residents understand what the developer is proposing for the tract, Morano asked Carpenter, "What could happen if they decided to go ahead with this greedy type of development?"

Carpenter, who noted that the TRC could continue its consideration of the proposal "about five" times, said the developer continues to have "due process" rights and "an opportunity to respond to comments."

"If they (Seacroft Holdings, as well as other developers), don't completely comply" with county codes, "they have the opportunity to revise their applications so they do comply," he added.

But Carpenter also hinted that the proposal could get a particularly stringent TRC review. "We won't make a decision on this one for maybe some time yet," he said.

Among the particular concerns noted by the county government departments reviewing the proposal are issues with whether or not plans for handling stormwater are adequate, landscape buffering from adjacent properties, and a suggestion for providing for overflow parking away from streets in light of anticipated changes to the county's development code.

"I think we've made some pretty large suggestions here that (the developer is) not in compliance yet, but they do have the due process right to go back and redesign or adequately respond to the comments," he said.