The 'wild, wild West': Walton pursues new process for land purchases, considers 2 properties

Jim Thompson
Northwest Florida Daily News

DeFUNIAK SPRINGS — Walton County commissioners have rejected bids from two real estate professionaIs interested in becoming part of the county government staff to provide guidance on property acquisition as part of a county effort to move away from what had been called a "wild, wild West" approach to considering purchases.

Commissioners on May 10 rejected the proposals, which had been pared down by the county staff from among a number of offers submitted for the work, after hearing from interim county counsel Clay Adkinson that it was difficult to compare the two offers. One of the selected proposals was predicated on a commission-based fee for services, while the other was based on either a flat fee or an hourly rate, depending on the work performed.

"The issue is, 'How do you rate two entities with different fee structures?' " Adkinson told commissioners.

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At his suggestion, the county will issue another request for proposals for the real estate work, this time including information on how Walton wants compensation for the work to be structured.

At the same meeting where they rejected the real estate services proposals, commissioners voted 4-1 — with Commissioner Tony Anderson dissenting — to take a look at possible purchases of a 199-acre tract adjacent to the Mossy Head Industrial Park and a 1-acre parcel in DeFuniak Springs.

Walton County commissioners will look at acquiring additional acreage near the Mossy Head Industrial Park. The nearby property is 199 acres and is being offered to the county at $15,000 per acre.

The move to take a deeper look at the land didn't run counter to a commission decision last year to tighten its property purchase procedures by developing a list of specific property needs and formally listing parcels that could meet those needs. However, the 4-1 vote did move the county back toward the less formal process in which properties would be offered to the county by their owners for purchase.

At the 2021 meeting when commissioners opted to pursue the more formal property acquisition process, Adkinson called the previous approach the "Wild, Wild West" and told commissioners then that "Any Realtor, any citizen, any person who thinks their cousin might have a piece of property the county wants, runs up here and says 'Will you buy the property? and (then says) 'Here's what I think it's worth.' "

Commissioner Danny Glidewell brought the potential property purchase to the commission. He said he was approached in his capacity as the chairman of the Walton County Economic Development Alliance (WCEDA) by the owner of the acreage, who was offering the land at $15,000 per acre, for a total price of about $3 million.

The nonprofit WCEDA is not part of the county government. It is overseen by a board comprised of representatives of the County Commission, educational administrators, utility providers, business owners and local mayors.

At Glidewell's suggestion, commissioners voted to have county staff members assess the property — it has been used as a sand pit — and also to get an appraisal of the tract and add it to the county's property acquisition list.

As a point of reference, the $15,000 per acre asking price for the tract is less than the $20,000 per acre that the county is seeking for land in the adjacent Mossy Head Industrial Park. Commissioners faced public criticism last month on their $20,000 asking price, but countered that the price obtained for the land is just one benefit of selling it, as purchasers will bring jobs and boost economic development.

Facing similar criticism from Barbara Morano of the nonprofit South Walton Community Council, Glidewell said, "All were doing is just exploring an option."

In the end, Glidewell said the county might, if it is purchased, hang on to the land rather than sell it for any sort of economic development use.

"It could be (used for) a lot of things," he said.

County resident Teddy Stewart questioned whether the tract could ever be made usable by the county.

"It's essentially a 200-acre hole in the ground" where sand has been pumped out since the 1970s, Stewart said.

"There's no way the county can do anything with that property," he added. 

Also brought to the commission by Glidewell was a proposal to consider purchasing a 1-acre tract on Baldwin Avenue in DeFuniak Springs between the Okaloosa Walton Council on Aging and the Ameris Bank for possible use as a county library and as a distribution center for county libraries' books.

Acquiring the property — which is currently available at $159,000, according to Glidewell — could allow the city of DeFuniak Springs to pursue architectural changes to the existing library that is owned by the city with the county maintaining the interior.

The library was established in 1886 and is recognized as the oldest continuously operated library in Florida. 

However, efforts to have the library officially recognized for its historic status have been hampered by an addition constructed in the 1970s. The structure also has experienced cracking and buckling of walls and problems with its doors and windows, prompting the city to use a $50,000 grant from the Florida Division of Historical Resources for an assessment of the structure.

Efforts to gain formal recognition of the Walton-DeFuniak Library as a historic site could get a boost if Walton County acquires land elsewhere in the city for a new library.

DeFuniak Springs City Councilman Anthony Vallee told commissioners at the meeting that it is  "very difficult to operate a modern library" from the existing building. 

Noting the opportunity to eventually get the DeFuniak Springs a new library and allow the city to make changes to the existing library in an effort to have it formally recognized as historic, Glidewell told fellow commissioners, "I don't want the land to get away."

Commissioners, again with Anderson dissenting, voted to put the tract on the property acquisition list and directed interim county Administrator Tony Cornman to get in touch with the real estate agent handling the property.

In other real estate-related action at the meeting, commissioners voted unanimously to send a 30-day notice to vacate to the current occupants of a nearly 5-acre tract on the south side of U.S. Highway 98 between Professional Place and Ellis Road in Miramar Beach.

The tract, purchased by the county last year with $5.5 million in bed tax revenue is slated to become a parking area for the Miramar Regional Beach Access on nearby Scenic Gulf Drive. During tourist season, parking is at a premium at the beach access lot.

The tract currently is occupied by Delta Pavers, a stone and tile business, and also includes a residential component. The occupants of the property have been on a month-to-month lease with the county since last year's purchase, and the 30-day notice to vacate is standard practice in such situations.