'Living at the beach is a luxury:' Opponents of South Walton affordable housing project speak out

Jim Thompson
Northwest Florida Daily News

SANTA ROSA BEACH — The Walton County Planning Commission has narrowly recommended that the Board of County Commissioners approve both a zoning change and a developer agreement that would allow the local nonprofit organization Christian International Inc. to build affordable housing comprising townhomes and apartments on 67.5 acres along U.S. Highway 98 in Santa Rosa Beach.

The acreage sits on both sides of U.S. 98, at Apostles Way on the north side and at Hamon Avenue on the south side. Christian International's plan calls for a total of 658 units, with 20% of the 410 apartments on the north side designated as affordable housing, and all of the 248 units on the south side to be designated as affordable housing.

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The Planning Commission's 4-3 vote on both the zoning change and the developer agreement are, however, contingent on Christian International and its representatives holding a community meeting to more fully discuss the proposal — particularly with residents of the nearby Peach Creek subdivision — prior to any County Commission meeting at which the project is to be discussed.

Residents of the neighborhood turned out in force at Thursday's Planning Commission meeting to complain that they hadn't been notified of the proposed actions, nor had they been aware of a community meeting that a representative of Christian International said had not attracted anyone.

Melissa Ward, who works on land use issues for the local law firm Dunlap & Shipman, which is providing legal services for the initiative, moved quickly at the meeting to tell the large crowd in attendance that the project is not involved with the federal housing voucher program known as Section 8, but is rather going to be operating under a program that requires renters to pay a percentage of their income for housing.

While some data suggest that apartments are available at rents of $1,000 per month in Walton County, that's not true, particularly for the south end of the county, Ward said. According to Ward, rent for a one-bedroom, one-bath apartment at a typical apartment community in South Walton is $1,600 per month.

A wetlands delineation map shows the Santa Rosa Beach location of an affordable housing project proposed by the local nonprofit organization Christian International. Representatives of the project will host a community meeting to further discuss the proposal.

Voting in favor of the zoning change and developer agreement were Planning Commission Chairman Lee Perry and members Tanner Peacock, Tom Babcock and Michael Harbin. Planning Commission members Dan Cosson, Fred Tricker and Barbara Brooke voted no. 

Broadly, members who voted in favor of the project believe affordable housing is needed in the southern end of the county to accommodate teachers, emergency personnel and service industry workers by giving them housing options close to work.

On the other side, Brooke remained silent while Tricker and Cosson suggested that bringing additional housing to the southern end would put more pressure on the area's already heavily used roads and other infrastructure, and also would eliminate some environmental conservation areas on the tracts proposed for development.

Cosson and Tricker — who stressed that they aren't against affordable housing — suggested that the south end of the county is not the place for it.

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Walton County Planning Director Mac Carpenter noted that the county's comprehensive development plan includes a housing element that addresses affordable homes precisely because the market isn't providing them.

"If you look at what's happening in Walton County right now, the market is not providing affordable housing because there is no financial incentive to do so, and that's why the county has to do certain things to encourage this particular type of development," Carpenter said.

As things are now, Carpenter said some people work in the area, including South Walton, drive from as far away as Alabama at considerable cost.

"They can never get ahead and can never get out of that (lower) segment of our economic strata, and what that creates is a continuous turnover of employees in the service industry," said Carpenter, who added that pursuing affordable housing is "an effort to help all of our industry in South Walton to provide a stable workforce ... ."

"The market can't give you affordable housing if you don't have anything zoned for it," said Perry, who added that "we don't have it because property values are too high (to justify affordable housing projects without zoning and other incentives)."

Among the people opposed to the proposed developer agreement and rezoning was Barbara Morano of the South Walton Community Council. 

After noting that residents hadn't been given adequate notice of the plans for the Christian International tracts and needed more time to consider those plans and develop arguments against them, Morano acknowledged that rents are high but added that it "is not the responsibility of the county to do a rezoning just to make affordable housing."

Other residents put a far less fine point on their arguments. They contended that the south end of the county is intended for higher-end residential development, and people shouldn't, in effect, be subsidized to live in the area.

Matt Adams, who lives with his wife and family in Paradise Cover near the site of the proposed project, told the Planning Commission that when they moved to the area four years ago, "if I couldn't have afforded that home, I wouldn't live in South Walton, period. No one subsidized my home when I moved here. The market is what it is ... and I don't know where the line is when we start messing with the market."

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Tyler Shook, who lives in Peach Creek with his family, added, "It seems that we have forgotten that living at the beach is a luxury. It's a luxury that I'm willing to pay for. It's a luxury that we paid handsomely for when we bought our home, and no one subsidized it. We didn't want it subsidized and I don't want South Walton to change."

However, Planning Commissioner Harbin countered that "we've got to have people here to do what the upper(-income) people want to have done."

Panel member Peacock said that "everybody is at risk of falling down into ... (a lower) income level at any one time," and added that "in the big scheme of the total number of housing units in the area, this (the Cristian International project) isn't even a drop in the bucket."