When it comes to the proposed Ferris wheel for The Village of Baytowne Wharf, it "should have been a less-than-minor development," says Sandestin owner Tom Becnel.
It's been almost a year since The Log first reported about the wheel, and yet the one-time Coney Island attraction is still in storage, disassembled, on Becnel's Sandestin Resort property.
"I wanted to return Sandestin to a family resort," Becnel said of his vision. "The apple needed polishing."
"Early on, I bought the carousel sort of as a billboard that change was coming," he added. "The Ferris wheel was supposed to be just another attraction to provide entertainment."
Instead, the approximately 60-foot Big Eli wheel has become a pile of paperwork that Becnel cannot seem to find a way out of.
"The county feels like they can change the rules as they go," he said. "Each time we go to a meeting they add new items of requirements. We're faced with trying to hit a moving target. The simple principle is law — the first property owner has the same legal rights as the last property owner. We've got these 'not-in-my-backyard' folks who cannot understand that."
But homeowners say they are just protecting their rights — and views — from a "skyline dominating issue."
"We feel strongly that Sandestin is not just an amusement park; it's a destination for a great all-around lifestyle," said William Godwin, president of the Gateway at Baytowne Wharf Condominium Association. “There is a certain degree of hustle and bustle in the Village but the transition from that to a carnival is another thing altogether.”
In its infancy, the proposal for the wheel was under review by the Walton County Technical Review Committee (TRC) as a minor development. On July 3, the TRC had postponed the proposal for a legal opinion on whether a variance, providing for construction heights at Sandestin over Walton County’s 50-foot limit, would hold for a non-building structure such as the Ferris wheel. According to the Defuniak Herald, at a Board of County Commissioners (BCC) meeting July 9, Commissioner Cindy Meadows presented concerns about the effect of the Ferris wheel on surrounding properties and public safety.
“This is an egregious impact on neighboring residential properties,” she told the crowd.
Meadows argued that the wheel proposal should come before the BCC in public session due to those impacts.
On July 10, the Design Review Board voted to have the Ferris wheel reviewed as a major development — much to the surprise of Becnel and Sandestin Real Estate's Executive Director Kitty Whitney.
"The Ferris wheel was brought up without being noticed on the agenda," Becnel said. "It turned into a major development even though it doesn't meet the criteria."
Becnel wanted to add the Ferris wheel to the children's area on Henry Lane in The Village of Baytowne Wharf to join amenities such as the carousel, zip line, and arcade. At the original location, its view would be out of the way of residents and Highway 98. The process of approving the Ferris wheel was almost complete when Sandestin Homeowner's Association brought up that the wheel would impose on the wetlands of that area. Whitney said they've continued to ask why the county would allow the rest of the development on Henry Lane and not the Ferris wheel.
"It got to the point where Tom said 'Let's place it somewhere else and try to move it back to the children's area once we clear up the issue,' " she said of recent plans to move the wheel to the Baytowne Events Plaza.
Becnel said he's tried to set up two different meetings with Commissioner Meadows, but was never given the time. In an e-mail interview with The Sun, Meadows preferred to speak personally about the wheel, and not on the behalf of the county.
"To allow a developer to install a 60-foot (old) Ferris wheel outside the balconies of residential units in the village sends a message to all future buyers of residences (whether the residences are lived in, rented, or bought for investment purposes)," she wrote. "The message is 'Come to Walton County, spend your money, pay your taxes, but we will not protect your investments, homes, or neighborhoods from development that will devalue those same investments.' That is my personal opinion of this type of proposal."
Meadows isn't the only one opposing the Ferris wheel. Sandestin homeowners are not too pleased with the thought of an amusement park ride possibly obstructing their view.
The Gateway Condo Association would be "directly impacted, more so than any other neighborhood association in Sandestin,” Godwin explained. "I don't believe our owners would want to, but they could carry on conversations with riders as they load the Ferris wheel."
What upset owners the most about the new Ferris wheel placement was that Becnel never attempted to talk to the association about it, according to Godwin. Owners don't just want the wheel moved, they now don’t want it at all.
"I don't think we'd support it anywhere in Sandestin," Godwin said.
Gateway Condo Association worked closely with Sandestin Owners Association to stop the wheel from turning in to Baytowne Wharf. They've attended meetings, made phone calls and sent letters to The Sun and the BCC.
"We are in this fight together," he said.
Godwin notes that the BCC, especially Meadows and Commissioner Sara Comander, have been a pleasure to work with.
"Cindy Meadows has been a princess and gets it right as to what an elected official should be," he said.
Becnel said the Ferris wheel itself is not what's important, but the fact that the county will not allow the system to work.
"They knew what we were doing, but at the eleventh hour, they came up with new restrictions," he said. "We just want to be treated fairly.”
Through future developments, including the Ferris wheel, Sandestin is looking to add approximately 800 jobs to the area. However, the county is holding up quality work for people, Becnel says. Future developments include 77 condominium units, a new arrival center and an expansion of the marina. Becnel has also floated the ideas of building a church and before that a casino. Both plans drew ire from homeowners.
But Becnel believes time is not necessarily on the resort’s side.
"If we don't continue to reinvent Sandestin, it will not continue to be the premium destination it is today," he said.
Becnel understands his role to please the 4,000 residents and owners at Sandestin Resort. He told The Sun he had been through a number of outreach efforts to show an attempt of cooperation with the county and homeowners.
"I've never refused to meet with anyone," he said.
In his 40-plus years as a real estate developer in areas such as Naples and Hawaii, Becnel said he has never experienced such roadblocks.
"I've never encountered such a dysfunctional political system," he said. "Walton County is there to hinder — it's backwards. Go to Crestview, and they invite you in; they encourage you. Planning departments are supposed to assist you."
Calls to the Walton County Planning Commission were left unanswered. However, Louis Svehla, public information manager to Walton Board of County Commissioners, explained to The Sun developments within the Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort are typically put through minor development planning. It was at the July 9 BOC meeting that Meadows requested to make the Ferris wheel a major development and recommended that the Board conduct the hearings and determine approval instead of the planning department.
Despite the work ahead of him, Becnel said he will continue to fight, not just for the Ferris wheel, but for his legal rights.
"That's my nature," he said with a shrug. "I'll continue to work through the process and evaluate my legal position. In the United States a development order is not a popularity contest, it is a legal right."