Here’s the perfect Christmas gift for three Walton County Commissioners: hearing aids, as it was on deaf ears that Inlet Beach homeowners’ outcries against a proposed development fell at Tuesday’s BCC meeting.
A four-hour Quasi-Judicial session ultimately ended with the commissioners’ final approval of highly contested Lupin Beach, a 20-home development on 6.36 acres in Inlet Beach, to be developed by Alys Beach Town Planner Jason Comer.
Commissioners Bill Imfeld, Kenneth Pridgen, and Bill Chapman were responsible for the approval, while commissioners Cindy Meadows and Sara Comander each gave “nay” votes.
Its future neighbors along Walton Magnolia Lane in Inlet Beach saw this as a last chance for the commissioners to hear them speak out against the project; they left the meeting defeated and unheard.
“Well, we lost,” said Inlet Beach resident James Connelly, a longtime owner at Shoreline 9 townhomes, which will look over Comer’s brand-new development. “This was a foregone conclusion, a done deal.”
Commissioner Cindy Meadows seemed to be the only elected official asking questions, during talks concerning the development. Meadows, who was not a commissioner when the development was initially passed through the BCC Feb. 23, 2010, asked questions about the situation of the homes, the dune ridge, and the environmental impact of the project.
Commissioner Imfeld asked that the project be approved when it was first brought up, then spent the next four hours sitting without speaking while Meadows asked to listen to the comments from the future neighbors of the proposed development.
Those against the project were not able to share their thoughts on the proposed development at the Technical Review Board meeting Oct. 11, and they again were all-but brushed aside at Tuesday’s meeting.
“At every stage of this project, from conceptual approval, technical review committee, final approval by the commissioners, the planning staff, planning commissioners, Walton County Commissioners kept limiting input on issues from the public,” said Connelly.
County Attorney Toni Craig said it was too late to take any action at the county level as far as appealing the project. That time passed a long time ago, according to Craig, who said any appeal must be filed within 30 days of a development approval.
The development initially passed through the conceptual approval in 2010, with yes votes from then-commissioners Scott Brannon, Larry Jones, Cecilia Jones and current commissioner Kenneth Pridgen. Sara Comander was a commissioner then but did not vote at that meeting, as she was absent. The project approval was about to reach its three-year expiration date, which would have been Feb. 23, 2013.
Scott Shirley, and attorney representing Walton Magnolia Lane resident Haines O’Neil, brought up one of the major issues with the project — building on, shifting and the diminishing the land’s large primary dune ridge.
According to county regulations, only limited construction is to be seaward of the Coastal Construction Control Line, which is marked at the landward toe of the primary dune ridge — the ridge the developers plan to move, which has historically protected surrounding properties through hurricanes and other storms.
“We found out via the O'Neil's attorneys that a major 33-foot-high dune seaward of the CCCL would be cut down to 24 feet and would be ‘shifted or moved’ … and that a six-foot-high retaining wall would be constructed for a single-lane street for access to four residences to be built seaward of the CCCL,” said Connelly.
That dune work to be completed seaward of the CCCL line must be permitted by Florida Department of Environmental Protection. DEP has yet to approve the permits.
Meadows heard the commentary from Shirley, peppered with objections by EBSCO’s lawyer, who said the project had already been approved and that to revisit it would open the door for both sides to speak.
Just before 11 p.m., after hours of back-and-forth talking, Meadows moved to approve the development with the four offending homes south of the CCCL line removed. This would leave 16 homes, which would better fit on the plot and also allow for preservation of the dune. Comander agreed that this was a good compromise, but Imfeld, Chapman, and Pridgen shut it down.
Imfeld again put forward his motion to approve the final plan as is. He was supported by Chapman and Pridgen.
A stunned Inlet Beach resident asked what the county had done.
“We don’t know what we’ve done,” said Meadows with foreboding.
And residents along Walton Magnolia Lane again went away feeling as though the county was not playing by its own rules.
“This project approval process had so many violations of the County Comprehensive Plan during the county review and approval process it was shocking to say the least, and very sad. Unfortunately this is going to cost the county … the violations are blatant and known to many and have been brought up over and over for the record many times,” said Connelly. “This story has not ended.”