'We were heard': Massive changes to Walton residential proposal earn praise

Jim Thompson
Northwest Florida Daily News

SANTA ROSA BEACH — It started off more than a year ago as a proposal to bring 186 residential triplex units to 36 environmentally sensitive acres at Draper Lake off Walton County Road 30A, touching off a firestorm of community resistance.

But over the succeeding months, as the developer, the developer's engineering consultant, the county planning department and the community worked through a series of discussions — both among themselves and in front of the county's Technical Review Committee — the proposal was whittled down to a plan for 31 single-family homes and a 1.7-acre tract for future commercial development.

And on Thursday, that plan was unanimously forwarded by the Walton County Planning Commission to the Walton County Board of County Commissioners with a recommendation that a development order be issued for the proposed Bluewater Landing on the edge of Draper Lake in a wide curve of CR 30A between County Road 393 and Blue Mountain Beach.

More:New proposal for 30A development on Draper Lake by D.R. Horton still sees opposition

More:Neighbors push back against Draper Lake proposed project in South Walton

This diagram shows the plan for the Bluewater Landing residential development proposed for Walton County Road 30A near Blue Mountain Beach. The proposal from D.R. Horton Homes is massively scaled back from original proposal for the site, which included nearly 200 triplexes.

The process that took the proposal from Arlington, Texas-based D.R. Horton Homes — a nationwide residential developer — from a massive intrusion on its neighborhood to an environmentally compatible residential and commercial project earned praise from all sides at the Planning Commission meeting.

"Was this easy?" asked Barbara Morano, a board member of the South Walton Community Council. The nonprofit organization spearheaded work by more than a dozen neighborhood associations and other groups that stood against the initial proposal.

"No," Morano continued, answering her own question before going on to praise "the results of time, negotiation, compromise, sensitivity to the community and caring ... ."

“In this project, we were heard," Morano said, expressing a hope that the process that developed around consideration of Bluewater Landing becomes "a model for you (the county) going forward."

'A team effort'

David Smith of Innerlight Engineering, the local planning and design firm that worked with D.R. Horton — and, as things turned out, the community — told planning commissioners before their vote that Bluewater Landing "became a team effort between the community, the developer and us.”

New proposal for 30A development on Draper Lake by D.R. Horton still sees opposition

Smith took particular note of efforts that led to the preservation and protection of Draper Lake and some surrounding acreage, which D.R. Horton is now dedicating to the county to be “further established and maintained by a land trust.”

"That was the residents' goal and our goal as well, and we wanted to come up with a mechanism to ensure that for everyone," Smith said.

It was, however, a gradual process that got the community and the developer to the point at which they arrived Thursday. After an initial community meeting in June of last year, D.R. Horton tried simply whittling down the number of triplex units.

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In subsequent iterations for Bluewater Landing, which involved meeting with the county's Technical Review Committee, which reviews projects before they are sent to the Planning Commission and eventually to the County Commission, the project became a proposal for 70 single-family homes before finally morphing into the 31-home development.  

"That first meeting, that was interesting," Smith said Thursday, his voice hinting at the tense nature of that session. But, he quickly added, even at that stage, concerned residents "treated me with respect."

Morano returned the compliment, praising Smith for being transparent with the community and for treating "everyone with respect and caring."

'They were straight on with us'

Morano also had praise for D.R. Horton Homes, saying that the company "didn’t go through any legal hoops or formalities. They were straight on with us, and we were able to reach the place where we are here today.”

Morano also had kind words for Stephen Schoen, the county planner who shepherded the project on behalf of the county government, calling him "open, informative, knowledgeable" and "always willing to take calls."

Morano went on to mention Mac Carpenter, the county's planning director, regarding his meetings with residents. "His patience was unbelievable," she said.

Carpenter also addressed the Planning Commission. “This may be the largest amount of public participation — in a very positive manner — that we may have had in Walton County."