Hewett Road, Draper Lake developments stall amid friction with neighbors, county

Jim Thompson
Northwest Florida Daily News

FREEPORT — A 107-room hotel planned by the St. Joe Co. for 4.47 acres on West Hewett Road in South Walton County won't get the go-ahead for a development order until the company reaches an agreement with the county on changes to the public road near the site.

Beyond that, no certificate of occupancy will be issued for the Topsail Hotel project — to be located at West Hewett Road and Dune Lake Road one block north of U.S. Highway 98 — until changes to West Hewett Road and the installation of a sidewalk are completed, according to information presented Wednesday to the county's Technical Review Committee (TRC).

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Work to improve the road, already problematic because of the Walmart located at the intersection of U.S. 98 and West Hewett, must be done along with construction of the hotel under the terms of a county Planning Department report reviewed Wednesday by the TRC.

The intersection has long been a concern for the county. In June of last year, the Walton County Board of County Commissioners approved an "operational analysis" of the intersection. At that time, a county public works engineer told commissioners that "turning movements in and out of Walmart" had created issues at U.S. 98 and West Hewett.

With regard to transportation issues, the St. Joe Co. — which is engaged in a massive 50-year residential and commercial development plan for 100,000 acres straddling Bay and Walton counties — recently issued a letter expressing opposition to a mobility plan now under review in Walton County.

The plan, which has not gotten a final vote by the County Commission, focuses on moving people rather than cars, and includes pedestrian, transit and road projects. Projects would be funded with a mobility fee charged to new developments in the county, which would have an impact on the St. Joe Co. and its plans.

A site plan shows the proposed layout of a 107-room hotel planned for West Hewett Road just north of U.S. Highway 98 in southern Walton County.

The plan, being developed by county planners in conjunction with NUE Urban Concepts consulting firm, has been developed in conjunction with numerous public workshops.

But in an April 22 letter to the County Commission, the St. Joe Co. recommended "that Walton County not adopt the proposed mobility plan and fee at this time and instead create a focus group of community stakeholders that include representatives from various segments of the entire county, including but not limited to environmental, neighborhood, construction, hospitality, education, law enforcement, small business owners and the FDOT (Florida Department of Transportation)."

More:Developer St. Joe Co. recommends Walton County mobility plan redo

The letter suggests that the stakeholders "should be given a specific task and time frame to present the commission a prioritized set of transportation improvements and potential funding mechanisms. All potential funding sources should be explored."

'Another look' at West Hewett Road 

At Wednesday's TRC meeting, county Planning Director Mac Carpenter referenced a letter to the county from the St. Joe Co. on the mobility plan as a reason for not granting a conditional approval of the hotel project, telling project representatives on hand, “Maybe that’s what we ought to do here, back up and take another look at West Hewett."

It was not immediately clear whether Carpenter's reference was to the April 22 letter. He had not returned a phone call seeking additional comment as of Thursday afternoon.

Catherine McCloy, St. Joe's director of planning and development, and author of the April 22 letter, was at Wednesday's TRC meeting. She told Carpenter and the TRC that the company has had conversations with the county's Public Works Department and is working on an application for a right-of-way use agreement that would start the process of making changes to West Hewett Road.

The TRC will take a look at progress on the agreement at its June 16 meeting or at whatever time after that it might be in place, under terms of the committee's unanimous Wednesday vote.

In other TRC business Wednesday, Carpenter urged the developer of a 3,250-square-foot office building proposed for a 0.30-acre lot on County Road 30A at Blue Gulf Drive to meet with neighborhood residents before submitting any final plans for the project.

The project engineer told Carpenter and the TRC that he would recommend that step to his client, Nextgen Properties of Santa Rosa Beach. In anticipation of that meeting, additional consideration of the project was moved to the TRC's July 7 meeting.

The Rushing 30A Office project is located near the site of a residential development coming to nearby Draper Lake that also attracted neighborhood opposition and, as a result, was dramatically reduced in size by the developer, D.R. Horton Homes.

'The right thing to do'

Barbara Morano, a neighborhood resident who had been instrumental in getting the D.R. Horton project trimmed, was among the people expressing concerns about the proposed office building.

Morano, representing the nonprofit South Walton Community Council, pushed Wednesday for the TRC not to take immediate action on the proposal.

"To the citizens, it is a major change in that neighborhood," Morano said, adding that any immediate approval of the project would “take away another opportunity for citizens to come before the TRC to make sure the i's are dotted and the t's are crossed.”

Among Morano's concerns are walls proposed for the site and its potential impact on 30A. 

"This is the time for planning (the Planning Department), for the community, for the engineer, for the developer, to come together for a mutually satisfying agreement," Morano continued. "We’re all going to be neighbors. This is a community that Rushing 30A office will be moving into ... (C)ontinuing this project (for later consideration) is not only the right thing to do for the community, but for the county. We do not have much land left on Scenic Highway 30A ... ."

Kerry King-Carmona, a member of the Draper Lake Coastal Village board, expressed the board's concerns about traffic the office building might bring to the neighborhood, and the potential for the building to be incompatible with the surrounding area.

"We feel it’s a continued destruction of 30A as far as our designation as a scenic highway,” she said.