SANTA ROSA BEACH — Thanks to a voting block of solidarity shown by three Walton County commissioners, Sandestin will soon lose the popular Jolee Island Nature Preserve and adjacent Sandestin Tennis Center.
Despite overwhelming public opposition at Monday's meeting, commissioners voted 3-2 to approve the open-space compliance and allow the construction of two high rises on the small island in Choctawhatchee Bay.
Sandestin Investments owner Tom Becnel has not been able to start any construction projects since 2014, when he was found non-compliant with Development of Regional Impact (DRI) open-space requirements.
To change that, Becnel met with the Walton County Planning Department last year to try to find spots, such as buffers, that might count as open space. The first vote on Becnel's compliance occurred in January and came within one vote of being approved by county commissioners. District 1 Commissioner Bill Chapman proved to be the swing vote two months ago.
Monday, Chapman came through for Becnel and his attorney, Dana Matthews, by joining District 2 Commissioner Cecilia Jones and District 5 Commissioner Tony Anderson in voting to approve the proposed changes.
District 3 Commissioner Melanie Nipper voted no to all the changes and District 4 Commissioner Sara Comander sided with Nipper on most of them.
Sandestin residents filled Emerald Coast Middle School's auditorium for Monday's eight-hour hearing. Most pleaded with commissioners not to allow Becnel to build more high rises at Sandestin. Residents from the adjoining Driftwood Estates also expressed their concern about construction.
Commissioners heard from lawyers and others who were involved in the early days of Sandestin. They said the resort is vested in its right to be built out. The five commissioners also heard from lawyers who argued for residents that Sandestin is not vested because there have been changes to the original DRI, which would void the right.
"There was no comp plan in 1984, and you are only vested in what happened then," said Driftwood Estates resident Alan Osborne. "You haven't had a traffic study since 2007, and a condition for approval was opening the road between Sandestin and Driftwood. There are drainage issues not being addressed. You are not telling the state what is going on."
But those arguments did not sway commissioners.
High rises approved
After the 3-2 vote, the next issue was whether Becnel would get the green light to build high rises.
Matthews argued that there are no height limits at Sandestin, but his client had voluntarily offered to limit heights on various parcels.
Becnel had proposed a 24-story building where Elephant Walk restaurant is now, but he withdrew the request.
One construction site not withdrawn was at Jolee Island Nature Preserve. However, he did lower the stories from 16 to 14.
Matthews said it was determined the parcel was assigned the designation of nature preserve in error, and the county's planning staff agreed.
As far as concerns about traffic congestion, Matthews told commissioners the state Department of Transportation has no objection to the projects.
"If these would create a major traffic problem, they would be obligated to tell the county," he said.
Residents exploded in disgust after the 3-2 approval.
Tennis center next to go
The third item addressed was the tennis center adjacent to Jolee Island, which Becnel wants designated as residential.
While the county staff recommended the change, County Attorney Mark Davis advised that any change not consistent with the county's Comprehensive Plan is not allowed.
"Changes to a DRI must comply with the current comp plan. There is no vesting to a change," he said.
However, Anderson argued that Sandestin has moved property around since 1984.
Sandestin Owners Association's attorney, Gary Hunter, answered that what Becnel wants to do is illegal because he is not complying with the comp plan and no traffic study has been done.
"When DOT did their study, they asked for two turn lanes on (U.S. Highway) 98. I have seen nothing from DOT that rescinded that," he said.
Attorney Shawn Heath of Tallahassee represented the greater Driftwood Estates residents. He told commissioners that Driftwood Estates is an example of what can go wrong with development.
Attorney David Theriaque, also of Tallahassee, represented Beachside II condominiums. He also said that any change through an NOPC must comply with the comp plan.
However, Walton planner Renee Bradley likened Sandestin's moving things around to like-kind transfers similar to Seascape and the height approval that was given to Grand Boulevard's hotel now under construction.
Anderson made the motion to accept the applicant's proposal and Jones seconded.
"We have been allowing these transfers and I want to treat everyone the same," Jones said.
The motion passed 3-2.
Anderson also moved to approve Becnel's proposal to take out the 15-court tennis center, and Chapman seconded. That vote also was 3-2.
Becnel and Matthews said they were happy and relieved after the votes.
Hunter said he will wait to hear from Sandestin homeowners on how they want to proceed.