Folks living near Walton County’s San Roy Road refer to Peter Russell’s vision as the “megahouse,” and almost universally oppose his plans to build it atop a Gulf-front sand dune near the outfall of a rare and imperiled coastal dune lake.
Controversy has followed the proposal to construct the 12,000-square-foot home since Russell requested a hardship variance he needed before seeking permits to build on 2.13 acres of beach at the tail of a dead end road where Eastern Lake meets the Gulf Of Mexico.
“It would be 30 percent larger than anything else in the area,” said Destin attorney Dan O’Rourke, who represents Russell’s next door neighbor. “It could sleep somewhere in the vicinity of 28 to 30 people, which seems a little excessive if that’s a single family residence.”
The desired variance would allow Russell to ignore a 20-foot setback typically required and build on the edge of the 33-foot county right of way set aside for county utilities and access. The variance would also allow for parking at Russell’s home that extends into the right of way easement, according to county Planning Director Mac Carpenter.
Walton County’s Zoning Board of Adjustments was asked on May 24 to consider Russell’s request for a variance because the Planning Department had rejected it.
“They asked the Zoning Board of Adjustments to do what I as the director could not and would not do,” Carpenter said.
Russell, a Texas resident, and his attorney, Gary Shipman, found four sympathetic ears on the Board of Adjustments, though, and the variance passed by a 4-2 vote.
Soon after, talk arose of the county wanting to buy the megahouse parcel.
Bill Fletcher, one of the zoning board members who opposed Russell’s request, said last week he was leery from the onset of the variance being granted, and his questions about the action taken by his cohorts only grew when he got word Russell’s property was suddenly on the market.
“This thing really bothers me. That was not only a ridiculous variance to grant, but now I’m hearing he’s offering to sell it to the county and the county’s offering to buy it,” Fletcher said. “I just don’t like the sound of this.”
Fletcher, who has qualified to run for Sara Comander’s Walton County Commission seat, said he had only heard rumors that a sale of Russell’s lot to the county was being discussed. He was unaware sitting Commissioner Cecilia Jones actually had requested prior to the board’s June 12 meeting that purchasing the San Roy Road plot be placed on the agenda for discussion.
“It has come to my attention that there are plans to develop property located at the Eastern Lake Outfall,” said Jones' request, which was pulled from the agenda before the meeting. “I am asking the board to consider purchasing this property so that it can be used for public beach access and to ensure that it can be kept in its current pristine condition.”
Jones said last week her request had nothing to do with the variance being granted or Russell seeking a sale of the property.
“Absolutely not,” she said. “We were negotiating with him before and that kind of disappeared. Then when the variance happened my reaction was ‘Oh wow, we’re going to have another house there.’ ”
Jones said the Russell property adjoins U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' land and a parcel the county already owns. She envisions a beautiful public area where visitors can appreciate the uniqueness of a coastal dune lake ecosystem.
But Jones also said she knows Russell's plot won’t come cheap. She acknowledged his asking price “might have been the reason negotiations went amiss.”
The purchase issue was pulled from the agenda so county staff could investigate it further, Jones said.
O’Rourke confirmed he had been approached by Sidney Noyes, the county attorney, at May's Board of Adjustments meeting and asked if his client might be interested in helping purchase the Russell property.
“I speculate they think my client would be willing to kick in some money to help the county purchase the property. Obviously, the county would not pay everything,” O’Rourke said. “We’ll monitor it.”
Asked if he’d discussed the option of selling the land at 187 San Roy Road with Russell, Shipman turned defensive. He said he would not reveal the nature of protected attorney-client conversations.
O’Rourke said he suspected Russell’s insistence on a megahouse could be part of a “multi-faceted approach to maximize the profit on the property.”
Russell, whose primary residence is in the same gated Dallas area community former President George W. Bush calls home, originally purchased the South Walton lot on Aug. 13, 2013, through 187 San Roy Beach Holdings LLC. The property was in foreclosure at the time and the limited liability corporation bought it for $900,100, Walton Property Appraiser records show.
On Oct. 31, 2016, having built a home on the lot and made what O’Rourke estimated to be more than $1 million in improvements to the property, 187 San Roy Beach Holdings sold a section of the original lot to Patco Energy LTD for $6.5 million.
O’Rourke’s client, Patricia Stephens, is a principal in Patco Energy, which, like San Roy Beach Holdings, is based in Dallas.
“He netted probably $4.1 million (on the sale of part of the original lot) and now he wants to build a 12,000-square-foot home,” O’Rourke said of Russell.
The lot Russell maintains today is bordered on the south by the Gulf of Mexico, on the west by the Eastern Lake outfall and to the north by the 33-foot county right of way.
Because it exists in a coastal protection zone, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection must approve any building permits, Shipman told the Board of Adjustments, and the only area approved for construction is in the northeast corner of the lot abutting the 33 foot right of way.
Shipman, who is adamant that receiving the variance is only the first step in what will be a long process to actually build on the lotl, argued before the board that the county historically had made exceptions to allow for construction inside setbacks.
It had, in fact, approved previous construction on Russell's lot based on the Planning Department's interpretation of the county development code that Carpenter now maintains is flawed.
The home built on the lot Russell sold was built in the right of way setback in the pre-Carpenter era. Carpenter argued before the Board of Adjustments that the flaws in the concept are clear from photos of the home.
“That home was sited within the public right of way, and if you look at pictures you can see a number of cars parked in the right of way,” Carpenter said. “That we don’t do any more.”
Russell’s company had not encountered trouble obtaining county letters approving a setback variance until 2017, when a new letter of consistency was requested from the Walton County Planning Department to present to the DEP.
The letter was needed because of modifications made at the home's site plan to accommodate parking. Carpenter told them no.
Previous letters of consistency, he told the Board of Adjustments, “were issued in error.”
Zoning Board of Adjustment
Joe Johnson, the chairman of the Zoning Board of Adjustments, made it clear from the beginning and maintained throughout the May 24 meeting that he believed Russell is entitled to develop his property.
Although another member did, Johnson never questioned the size of the home the property owner sought to squeeze onto a universally acknowledged limited footprint.
“To me it’s real simple,” Johnson said.
However, O’Rourke pointed out that previous allowances for construction on the parcel Russell, and prior owners, had sought to develop were provided for a lot that was basically twice the size of the one for which 187 San Roy Holdings was seeking its variance.
Russell chopped the parcel approximately in half before selling land to Patco Energy in 2016, O’Rourke said.
O’Rourke objected to the contention that a variance should be issued based on the fact variances had been issued before, or that Russell's parcel had been deemed suitable for development in the past.
Johnson waved off O’Rourke’s contention that, given the profit he’s already made on the San Roy Road parcel, Russell’s argument of hardship lacked substance.
In sustaining an objections from Shipman, Johnson didn’t allow O’Rourke to present evidence the attorney said would make it clear the type of environmental harm that could be done by building a 12,000-square-foot house on top of a primary sand dune next to the outfall of a coastal dune lake.
“If this variance is granted you will be facilitating environmental damage that is irremediable,” O'Rourke told the board.
O’Rourke said he will appeal the board’s decision to grant the variance.
“What seemed to underlie everything the county did was based on ‘he’s entitled to build something,' ” he said. “A, that’s not in their purview and B, I don’t think it’s established.”
O’Rourke said Friday that he had learned the order granting the variance had been submitted a week earlier without anyone informing him. The move would not impact his ability to submit the appeal in a timely fashion, he said.
The public was allowed to speak to the Board of Adjustments following O’Rourke’s presentation. Most people opposed the variance.
Resident Clifford White who might have coined the term “megahouse” in referring to Russell’s construction plans. He told the board that he, as a coastal dune lake property owner, had learned to abide by Walton County’s strict rules for development around the unique ecosystems.
He called upon Russell to do the same.
“The rules are in place to preserve these natural resources. Coastal dune lakes are one of the most special places in the county and in the world,” White said. “We live by the rules, but what we’re hearing, effectively, is ‘we don’t want to live by the rules, do something special for us so we can build this megahouse.' ”
During discussion that followed the debate, board member Daryl Burgis commented on the extent of the hardship Russell must endure building within a coastal protection zone with water on two sides of his property. Board member Phil Anderson warned him “don’t confuse hardships with constraints.”
A motion to deny the variance narrowly failed. The vote to approve was then passed, with Fletcher and Anderson voting against.
O’Rourke’s appeal will go to the Walton County Commission for consideration. The variance granted by the Zoning Board of Adjustments will be submitted to DEP with a request to amend parking provisions at the Russell property.