Walton County mobility plan moves closer to commission consideration
DeFUNIAK SPRINGS — A $2-trillion-plus federal infrastructure plan from President Joe Biden now making its way through Congress could possibly provide some funding for a proposed mobility plan now under consideration by Walton County officials.
The plan, which would chart transportation infrastructure development in the county for the next 20 years, will be the subject of a public hearing and workshop as a part of the upcoming April 27 meeting of the Walton County Board of Commissioners. The meeting starts at 9 a.m. at the South Walton Courthouse Annex in Santa Rosa Beach.
"We are super-excited about that," Kristen Shell, a county planning department staff member serving as the county's project manger for the mobility plan, said of the federal infrastructure proposal at a Thursday public workshop on the plan. "We are definitely going to be watching it."
In fact, Shell told those attending the workshop in person and via the Zoom teleconferencing tool that she is "going to be soon making a recommendation that we get a grants person on contract to get us ready" to attract any federal dollars that might be available for local transportation projects.
"I really believe that there’s some money coming down, and we need to catch some," Shell said.
The proposed mobility plan, which contemplates more than 220 projects at a currently projected cost of $750 million, contemplates that 75% of the funding would come from sources outside the county.
Within the county, funding for the proposed projects — which would cover everything from traditional road widening initiatives, mostly in the northern reaches of the county, to parking and transit projects in the county's southern end — would come from a mobility fee charged to new residential and business development.
The fee would replace the "proportional fair share" system now in place, under which developers are charged based on the impact of their development on the surrounding road system.
But that system results in a piecemeal approach to transportation infrastructure that doesn't produce significant improvement, Shell said.
“You just never get to the point of actually being able to do stuff,” she said.
In rough figures, covering 25% of the cost of proposed projects would require the mobility fee to raise $187.5 million over 20 years, but the eventual figure would be affected by the actual amount of outside funding attracted by the county and on whether the County Commission approves all of the projects listed in the plan.
Proposed transportation improvements would include widening of major routes in the northern and central parts of the county, including U.S. Highway 331 and State Road 20, while public transit projects would be part of the plan for the south end.
The full proposed plan is available online at https://www.co.walton.fl.us/1268/Walton-County-Mobility-Plan---Proposed.
Broadly, according to Jonathan Paul of NUE Urban Concepts, the consulting firm working with the county, the plan is based on modeling that takes into account future traffic patterns not only in Walton County but across the region, and on projections of future growth in the county itself based on its current land use plan.
Commissioners will be presented with a proposed ordinance related to the plan at the April 27 meeting, and could make a final decision as soon as a May meeting.
Shell said county planners will urge the commission to schedule a separate meeting for any potential adoption of the plan rather than tacking the issue onto the agenda for a scheduled commission meeting. Those meetings can last for a few hours or longer.
Whenever the decision comes, collection of the mobility fee could not begin until 90 days after adoption of the plan.
The mobility fee has been a source of some significant concern for the county's business community, and has been revised downward as the plan has come under public review in recent months.
Under the current proposal, the fee would be assessed based on where a development is located in the county. For example, a new vacation rental property in the south part of the county would be assessed a $1,907 per-room fee. A development in the central part of the county would assessed a $1,526 per-room fee and a vacation rental development in the northern part of the county assessed a $763 per-room fee.
As another example, new industrial structures would be assessed $700 per square foot in the south end, $560 in the central portion of the county and $280 in the northern end.
Mobility fees would have to be used to fund projects in the area in which they are collected.
As has been the case at previous workshops, Walton Area Chamber of Commerce CEO Megan Harrison made the business-oriented case against the mobility fee again on Thursday.
The fee, Harrison argued, "does put quite an onus on the business community, especially as it relates to some of the residential development aspects. That's something that's essentially going to be passed on to the homeowner, and we already have a major struggle in Walton County and surrounding areas with affordable and attainable housing."
That assertion got some pushback from Shell, who noted that land costs and construction costs are more significant drivers of residential development and purchasing costs than a mobility fee that would be $1.25 per square foot in the south end, $1 per square foot in the central part and 50 cents per square foot in the northern end of the county.
“The market in Florida does not deliver affordable housing,” Shell said, "and it's not because Walton County is charging an impact fee (with the possible mobility fee), it’s much deeper than that.”
Shell asked Harrison if the chamber had a position, or could develop a position, on proportional fair share in advance of any commission vote on the mobility plan. She added that under the current proportional fair share system, a new business coming to Walton County Road 30 would pay $112,000 for transportation infrastructure, as opposed to a $4,000 mobility fee assessment.
Paul also weighed in on Harrison's objections to the mobility fee, noting that the commission could ask his firm and the county planning staff to reconfigure the fee structure before any plan is adopted.
"We could look at these numbers further, if that's what the direction of the board is," Paul said.
Shell said the plan, in whatever form it finally might be adopted, would be pursued under roughly a five-year time frame, with commissioners revisiting it each year to align funding availability with opportunities for pursuing elements of the plan.
“Every year, there’s going to have to be a sort of a reckoning of monies available, opportunities and need that’s tied to the county’s annual budget process," she said.