'Something is going to get built here': Developer, residents to meet on 30A townhomes proposal

Jim Thompson
Northwest Florida Daily News

SANTA ROSA BEACH — The developer of a proposed 20-unit townhome project on 2 acres near the western end of Walton County Road 30A has a month to meet with residents of the adjacent Cypress Dunes subdivision to discuss modifications to his plan before coming back in front of a county project review committee.

That was the unanimous decision reached Wednesday by the Walton County Technical Review Committee (TRC), a group of county government department heads chaired by Walton County Planning Department Director Mac Carpenter.

The decision came as residents of Cypress Dunes asserted at the meeting that the plan for the Cypress Heights project goes beyond what was contemplated in a previous approval some years ago of a "Planned Unit Development" (PUD) proposal.

A site plan shows a proposed 20-townhome development on the western end of Walton County Road 30A. The developer and neighborhood residents are set to meet about the project prior to an April 6 session of the county's Technical Review Committee, an initial step on the way to possibly getting the project built.

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Melissa Ward, a land planner working with local law firm Dunlap & Shipman on behalf of Cypress Dunes residents, contended that the current proposal for Cypress Heights "is a substantial deviation to the PUD" and is "not in character and scale, as it is required to be, for compatibility with the (Cypress Dunes) neighborhood."

Among other things, Ward said the current proposal for Cypress Heights shows townhomes with five bedrooms rather than the two- or three-bedroom units that had been part of the original plan.  

Beyond that, neighbors argued that the townhomes — described by one neighbor as "industrial modern" — were incompatible with Cypress Dunes in both style and height.

Ward told the TRC that the current plan for Cypress Heights "is a significant change in what the neighborhood was expecting."

"We believe this is a substantial deviation (from the PUD) and should be modified to become a major development order," she contended.

The project currently is being treated by the county as a "minor development," meaning that an order to allow the project to proceed could be issued by the TRC without any further county review.

Treating the Cypress Heights proposal as a "major development" would require that plans be reviewed by both the Walton County Planning Commission and the Walton County Board of County Commissioners before a final decision could be made. Each stage of that expanded process would include opportunities for public comment.  

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Tim Brown, the Walton County Planning Department planner reviewing Cypress Heights, told the TRC that the department is concerned about compatibility issues. Brown noted that the original PUD plan for the tract included a requirement for mixed-use development — integrating multiple uses into a single project — but that is not included in the current proposal.

"It requires a PUD amendment if they're not going to do that," Brown said. 

Carpenter also noted that the current proposal is "not the exact plan that was originally approved," and that's the reason county planners have "proposed that a compatibility analysis ... would be something that we would be looking at."

According to information from the meeting, representatives of  the developer, Cypress Heights Holdings LLC — incorporated last July with a Miramar Beach address — had moved prior to the TRC meeting to set up a meeting with the neighborhood to talk about the project.

The development company had previously had a neighborhood meeting last September, when nearby residents learned that plans would call for the 20 townhomes to be four stories tall.

Keith Harris, president of the Cypress Dunes homeowners association, told the TRC that the community mobilized again recently after seeing plans for Cypress Heights showing what he called "the kind of townhomes you'd find in an industrial district."

"It sent everybody into a panic," said Harris, who added that communications with the developer had been "radio silence until we came to this meeting today."

Terri Kurkjian, who sits on the Cypress Dunes homeowners association board, made an impassioned plea for further review of Cypress Heights.

The west end of 30A, which includes the Topsail Hill Preserve State Park, "is a gem that we have, that if we change it, can never go back," Kurkjian told the TRC. "And I just think about these big, huge townhomes, to the left of Topsail Hill park, and I say, 'What are we thinking?' This is tragic for this to happen. ... When you make your decision, I want you to think about the beauty of scenic 30A ... ."

Kurkjian's comments prompted Carpenter to offer lengthy comment, impassioned in its own way, on the county's planning process.

"We absolutely do consider those things because we live here," Carpenter, a lifetime resident who lives in the north end of the county, told Kurkjian and others on hand. "So please understand that we care about 30A, we care about all of south Walton County, and we care about all of Walton County.

"This is one county — and this is the greatest place to live in the world, in my opinion — and we want to make sure that it stays that way and continues to improve and not degrade," Carpenter continued. "That is absolutely our (the county Planning Department) charter, and that's what we're going to do."

But he added that planners are bound by the county land development code and comprehensive plan and told the residents that "something will be developed" on the 30A tract, although it likely will be more in line with the original PUD than with the current development proposal.

From there, Carpenter said that the TRC review process — and whatever other level of county review the proposed Cypress Heights project might face — "is not an effort to stop all development" of the property.

The only way to stop development of the tract is for them to purchase the tract and to decide to leave it in its current state, he added.

"That's the only way you can stop development ...," Carpenter said, adding that developers are in business to make money while the county's role is to ensure that whatever is built is compatible with its surroundings.

"These applicants intend to make some kind of money," Carpenter said, "and that's what this country is based on — the opportunity to see an economic opportunity and take advantage of it to improve our station in life."

"So," Carpenter continued, "something is going to get built here. It's just a question of exactly what, and what we (the county) can do to make sure that it is as compatible with the built environment around it as possible."

As Wednesday's meeting wound down, Carpenter expressed some optimism that the neighborhood and the developer could "... come to some kind of understanding about what can be proposed here that's financially viable for the applicant and acceptable to the folks that have to drive by it every day."