Walton County residents fear development is changing the community for the worse

Jim Thompson
Northwest Florida Daily News
A lift sits next to new residential construction on County Road 393 in South Walton County. Development and real estate transactions are booming in South Walton even as county officials take steps to curtail some of that development.

SANTA ROSA BEACH — Susan Lucas' vision of Walton County stretches back to when she was 3 years old and vacationing along quiet local beaches with her family.  

The family moved to the county in 1966, first living in a house at Blue Mountain Beach and then moving to Hogtown Bayou on Choctawhatchee Bay. 

Lucas subsequently moved away, but always found time to spend a couple of months in South Walton before she returned permanently in 1999. 

"I did pay some attention" to development pressures, she said, "but I didn't pay enough attention."

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In a recent interview, Lucas particularly lamented that efforts to preserve land in South Walton in its natural state as development pressures began to build in the 1980s were not more successful. 

"That's what I hate the most," she said. "It would have been such a lovely place."

And in many respects, much of Walton County will remain a lovely place, inasmuch as thousands of acres are protected from development as state forestlands, within the Nokuse Plantation private nature preserve, as parts of the sprawling Eglin Air Force Base reservation or as undevelopable wetlands.

At the same time, however, more and more people are looking at Walton County, particularly the south end along its beaches, as a place to live, work, retire or visit. U.S. Census figures show that the county's population grew by almost 20,000 people between 2010 and 2019 to more than 70,000. And the Walton County Tourist Development Council reported recently that for 2020, a year impacted by coronavirus-related travel restrictions and a relatively brief closure of vacation rental properties, nearly 4.5 million people visited the county.

Along with that, it's abundantly clear, and has been for some time, that development pressures, particularly in its southern reaches between Choctawhatchee Bay and the Gulf of Mexico, are considerable.

New home construction is underway in the Sandhill Pines subdivision in Santa Rosa Beach.

In May 2020 alone, proposals for a 252-apartment, 24-town home, 12 single-family home development on 38 acres on Mack Bayou Road; a 98-town home, 73 single-family lot development on Chat Holley Road; 44 town home lots on 9 acres on Veterans Road; and 28 town homes on 3.3 acres on U.S. Highway 98, came before the county. 

Between the end of May and the end of 2020, development proposals included 77 town homes proposed for Mack Bayou Road; the laying out of almost 150 single-family lots on 300 acres off Watersound Parkway and a 150-town home, four single-family home proposal for slightly less than 40 acres on Indian Woman Road. 

That pace has continued into this year, as proposals for developments comprising dozens of town homes and single-family lots have at least begun making their way through the county's planning and development process. But as County Commissioner Danny Glidewell pointed out in a recent interview, the protected natural areas of the county, along with its wetlands, are forcing at least some limits on development.

In South Walton in particular, Glidewell noted, "we're almost at the point to where we're built out."    

'I'm not going anywhere' 

The current pace of development is perhaps most keenly felt by those who have seen the area transformed from a collection of small and quiet beachside communities along County Road 30A and in other places like Scenic Gulf Drive. Today, both routes are lined by resort, residential and commercial development, populated heavily and all but constantly by visitors and new residents who jam roads and create other pressures on the infrastructure.

Today, Lucas says, there remains "a little bit of disconnect between the citizens and the government."  

One of those disconnects, she suggested, is the TDC's work to continue bringing large numbers of visitors into the county. In her view, the TDC is not giving enough consideration to the quality of visitors' experiences or to the impact of visitors on residents' lives. 

New home construction is underway in the Sandhill Pines subdivision in Santa Rosa Beach.

As far as the county government in general, "the citizens feel like our voices are not heard," Lucas said. 

"I think we've got to get a handle on the density" of development, she continued, adding that she'd like to see some sort of "community visioning process" to get residents involved in planning regulations and decisions. 

"It needs to be citizen-driven," she said. 

In the meantime, Lucas sees some reason for optimism as the result of November's County Commission election, which brought in two new board members — William "Boots" McCormick and Mike Barker — who in concert with Commissioner Danny Glidewell, have formed a 3-2 bloc in a number of recent votes, with Commissioners Tony Anderson and Trey Nick on the other side. 

"There has been a history of a lack of consideration for South Walton in previous boards of county commissioners," Lucas said.

"I feel more hopeful" with the new commission dynamic, Lucas added. But, she said, McCormick, Barker and Glidewell, to the extent they vote together, "can't make a 180(-degree shift) and just turn things around right away." 

Glidewell insists that he considers a wide variety of viewpoints on development and other issues before making any decisions. Elected to the commission in 2018, he said in a recent interview that "one of my goals was to be more responsive. ... I try to listen to anyone who wants to talk to me. I try not to make my mind up until I have to."  

Lucas said people interested in the future of South Walton aren't simply relying on a shift in the commission's make-up to get their concerns addressed. Social media has become a way to get information out quickly to spur action, she said, noting that just one Facebook page, "Walton County Ideas for Visioning and Quality of Life," has almost 8,000 members. 

"We try to be a reliable source for good information," she said.

A large tract of vacant land has sold next to the Publix of South Walton on Highway 98. New business construction, real estate developments, and real estate transactions are booming along Highway 98 in South Walton County between Miramar Beach and Grayton Beach.

Glidewell concedes that the commission is seeing more public involvement in development issues, and says it is "because there are so many more projects" moving through the county government pipelines. And owing to previous development, Glidewell said more and more people are affected by proposed new projects.

"There are very few parcels that don't have neighbors," Glidewell said. "The easy stuff has been done."   

One thing that Lucas said she would like to see in terms of putting pressure on local officials with regard to development issues would be increased involvement from part-year residents, who rent their homes out to vacationers during tourist season and live here in the off-season. 

"They should wake up," Lucas said, because for the "long term, it (burgeoning development) will affect property values." 

The goal should be that "20 years from now, people still want to come here and live here," she added. 

Lucas has declared herself ready for the needed effort to get some control on development in the south end. 

"I'm committed, because my roots are so deep here, and I love the place so much," she said. "I'm not going anywhere." 

Along with Lucas' commitment, there's a sense of optimism about the future for the development of South Walton. 

"I believe that the tide will turn and we will get control of it," she said. "It's going to take everybody compromising a little. I won't get all I want." 

North 393 is a new development at Highway 98 and County Road 393 featuring upscale shops and residences. New business construction, real estate developments, and real estate transactions are booming along Highway 98 in South Walton County between Miramar Beach and Grayton Beach.

'A team effort' leads to a community win

There is a test case for how such a compromise could work.  

Texas-based nationwide homebuilder D.R. Horton Homes had a plan for the 36-acre tract at Draper Lake — 186 residential units arranged in triplexes, a 6,000-square-foot commercial structure, a swimming pool and parking for 372 vehicles. 

The plan was introduced publicly more than a year ago as it began making its way through Walton County's development approval process. Immediately, neighbors began to push back hard against the proposal for one of the last undeveloped tracts on CR 30A and its threat to the rare coastal dune lake, a crucial wildlife habitat. 

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By November of last year after meetings with those neighbors, D.R. Horton came back with a plan to develop the tract with 70 single-family homes and a small commercial component, but neighbors continued to decry the plan as too dense and intrusive for the neighborhood and its rare ecosystem. 

In mid-May, with no small assist from Innerlight Engineering, a local firm working with D.R. Horton on the technical aspects of its proposal, the project finally cleared its initial hurdle by getting an OK from the county-appointed Technical Review Committee (TRC) — for a development comprising 31 single-family homes and a 1.77-acre commercial area, with restrictions on the types of businesses that can be located there. 

Not to mention D.R. Horton's decision to dedicate the lake and some surrounding property to the county for preservation through a yet-to-be worked out arrangement for a land trust. 

The road to translating the development from plan to reality isn't over, with a review and recommendation from the Walton County Planning Commission yet to come and then a final decision by county commissioners. 

But at the TRC meeting, committee members and residents who had opposed the original concept for what is now known as Bluewater Landing marveled at the road the development proposal had taken. Innerlight Engineering's David Smith, who is seeing the project through for D.R. Horton, said that at some point in what began as a contentious relationship, work on the development "became a team effort between the community, the developer and us.” 

It wasn't easy, Barbara Morano, an advocate for South Walton and a primary voice in the work on Bluewater Landing told the TRC, but the work did show that the interests of developers and the community can be effectively balanced. 

The evolution of the Draper Lake project, Morano said, showed "the results of time, negotiation, compromise, sensitivity to the community and caring ... ." She expressed a hope to the county's planning staff, appointed boards and elected officials that the process that evolved around Bluewater Landing becomes "a model for you going forward." 

'People want to move to Walton County' 

County officials are keenly aware of the complexities of managing growth. 

"People want to move to Walton County," Planning Director Mac Carpenter said at an April meeting of the TRC, "and they want to move here faster than we can accommodate it right now.”

The numbers from the 2020 census won't be available until later this year, so the number of residents as compared to the 2010 census isn't yet known. But the Census Bureau's 2019 estimate put the county's population at 74,071, up almost 20,000 from 2010, when the population was 55,046. And when the new figures come out, it's not unreasonable to suppose that the 2020 census numbers could reflect a doubling of the county's population from the 2000 count of 40,601.

Within that dynamic, Carpenter said at the TRC meeting, people coming to Walton are "buying the stuff (homes and residential property) over the phone. ... Shame on somebody that buys something without seeing it. ... (M)ost people don’t buy a house without seeing it, but it happens here.”

Carpenter's comments came in connection with a 32-lot residential subdivision proposed for a 4.11-acre tract on the north side of U.S. Highway 98 at Inlet Beach, a development density that Carpenter assailed as too high. Carpenter added that the county's planning apparatus "want(s) to make sure that the public is properly protected" ... and told the developer's representative, "(We) certainly appreciate the interest in investing in Walton County, (but) let’s just get the best product we can.”

Carpenter is far from alone in his concern about development, particularly in the south end. In February, county commissioners voted unanimously to spend $8.9 million — $2 million in county reserve funds dedicated to land preservation and $6.9 million in reserve funds from the county's Tourist Development Council (TDC), which is funded with a 5% accommodations tax charged to visitors — to acquire 220 acres along the south side of Chat Holley Road between U.S. Highway 331 and Walton County Road 393.

The acreage, in an area where residential and commercial development is rampant, had been on the market for residential development until the county began investigating the possibility of acquiring it for proposed public projects to include an amphitheater, passive recreational opportunity, stormwater treatment and wetlands protection, and roads.

A vacant parcel at U.S. Highway 98 and Church Road in Walton County is under contract as other parcels still seek buyers. Development continues to boom in South Walton, prompting concern among residents and officials.

While some residents criticized the county at the February meeting for making the purchase under the terms of a perceived threat that it otherwise would become yet another residential development, Commissioner McCormick asked rhetorically, "But the other side of the coin is who do you think would be the better steward, the developer or the county? God knows how many (residential) units would be thrown up there. I just think the county would be a better steward in doing the development.”

"It is a nice thing that we're not going to (have developers who might) build 400 houses" on the acreage, Glidewell said in the recent interview. But he was quick to add that a major interest for him in acquiring the property was the stormwater management opportunities that it offers to protect the water quality in nearby Choctawhatchee Bay, and the opportunity to add roads in an area regularly crowded with traffic.

"We've got a responsibility to build infrastructure so people can get to the store," Glidewell said. 

Commissioners also have taken more direct and immediate steps in the face of burgeoning development. Last November, for instance, they turned down a proposal for a development planned for slightly less than 10 acres on Nellie Drive between Chat Holley Road and Choctawhatchee Bay, where 55 town homes and five combined live/work structures were contemplated. The 3-2 vote against the project came on the heels of concerns about the density of the development.

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'I think we've turned the corner'

Count Fred Tricker among those concerned about development who nonetheless is optimistic about the future.

Which isn't at all to say that Tricker — a member of the South Walton Community Council that works to preserve, protect and enhance both the quality of life and the natural environment — is happy about the current state of the south end.

For instance, he believes the county has reached a tipping point in which people frustrated by the pressures of development are opting to move elsewhere.

"I think we're there," he said. "People are bailing out. For a lot of people, it has become nothing like it was when they moved here. ... Now, you can't drive down 30A and see the water. It's a totally different environment."

For Tricker, a major point of concern is the density of development being allowed.

"I have been to a number of hearings where people have come in to ask for density (increases) to make more money," Tricker said. "Then, all of a sudden, you've got double the density that was intended."

Worsening the problem is that density issues are affecting environmentally sensitive areas "and the developers are still trying (to get those density increases)," he added.

"Nobody's looking at the big picture," Tricker said in a recent interview. "We've got flooding issues. We've got traffic issues ... and those things, after the fact, are very, very expensive" to address.

And the cost to address those issues ultimately is borne by residents, he said. 

But like Lucas, Tricker is optimistic that the current County Commission will at least work to bring problematic development-related issues to heel.

"The people that are in there I don't think are going to put up with that," he said.

November's election results revealed a deliberate focus among residents on the role of local government in development, Tricker added.

"Definitely, there's been a lot more interest" among voters, he said. "I think that was evident during the last election cycle. I think they (voters) understand our county government has a lot of control over our standard of living and our quality of life.

"What we really were looking for, I think, were people that were going to represent the interests of the citizens of the county," he said.

A large parcel on Chat Holley Road in South Walton County sits ready for construction. In an effort to curb at least some development in that area, Walton County commissioners recently approved an $8.9 million purchase of a 220-acre tract for an amphitheater and other public projects.

Thus far, Tricker said he hasn't been disappointed by the new commission.

"They're respectful," he said. "The deliberation is very thoughtful. They ask the right questions."

And Tricker believes that November's election results might spur a steady stream of candidates in upcoming years who will be focused on more thoughtful approaches to development.

"It's a tough job, it really is. But I think there are people who are out there and ready to serve," Tricker said. "I think we've turned the corner."

'People are sick of being blindsided'

In the meantime, there is no shortage of development-related frustrations for residents. One case is the recent cutting down of all but one of a grove of live oak trees in Seagrove Beach by a developer who exceeded the limits of a county-issued construction permit.

County code officials summoned to the scene by nearby residents were able to save the lone tree — although some branches had been trimmed off of it — but residents have been galvanized into paying closer attention to development around them and pressing the county government for action.

"How long can you scream and yell and complain ... and have people push you away?" Coy Bowman, a longtime resident of Seagrove Beach, asked in the hours after the trees were cut down.

"We're all saying, 'How did this happen? How did we miss this?' " lamented Laura Reynolds, partner in a landscape design business housed in what had been the shade of one of the now-gone trees. "People are sick of being blindsided."