The group A Better South Walton held another informational meeting Monday night to present their proposal of incorporation for South Walton and to answer any questions the public might have about the matter, but only a handful of people showed up and even fewer asked questions.
ABSW has now held at least five advertised public town hall-style workshops to inform the public of their reasons and their journey through this process. Some have been well attended, particularly those held on the east end.
"We also had three very productive separate charter workshops that were extremely well attended," said ABSW President and Attorney David Pleat. "We have also had dozens of meetings with various associations, neighborhoods, service organizations and a large meeting of the Sandestin Owners' Association Advisory Board Association presidents."
The group has also individually and sometimes in small groups met with individuals for lunch or meetings to educate and answer questions.
ABSW operates under an eight-member volunteer board of local residents who became concerned that there was no real plan in place to handle South Walton's growth. After research, it was decided that incorporation was the best option for South Walton.
So far, a feasibility study has been done that shows incorporation is viable, and a charter has been drafted and sent to the Florida Senate.
"South Walton has been able to survive up until now by having large tracts of land available, but that will not aide us in surviving in the coming years," Pleat said. "Government works best when it's closest to the people affected. Governing South Walton in South Walton would better serve our needs. When we looked at what we could do, we found that incorporation would best suit our needs."
Pleat said that some of the issues the area currently face are an outdated comprehensive plan and land development code for the whole county, but one for South Walton would best serve the community.
"On things like stormwater management, water, waste disposal, parking, congestion, and illegal lot clearing, we need to be laser focused," he said.
South Walton currently has a population of more than 23,000, said ABSW director Leigh Moore, making up half the county's population.
"City government is more optimal for dense areas," she said.
If South Walton does incorporate it will become Walton County's fourth municipality, joining DeFuniak Springs, Paxton and Freeport.
The biggest hurdle the movement faces now is that Rep. Brad Drake must originate it in the House.
"He has to commit, and we hope he champions it," said Pleat. "The possible impediment is that he will decide not to submit it."
"We must preserve the area," said Alan Osborne from the audience. "I have lived here since 1988. We must have a plan. We need more skin in the game. We have $100 million in reserves, but we need $100 million worth of drainage to catch up. Infrastructure must be paid for. Support this for skin in the game."
Pleat urged all to sign the petition to get the referendum on the ballot, and to write and call Drake's office to urge him to support it, or to just give the citizens of South Walton the right to vote on it. The link to contact Drake is on the ABSW website.
"We are awaiting word from Rep. Drake that he is going to submit a local bill for the upcoming State Legislative session that begins In March," said Pleat. "It is up to Rep. Drake to submit a local bill that will allow for voters in South Walton to vote on whether to incorporate. If Rep. Drake does not submit the local bill, the imitative will have come to an impasse. We are hopeful that he will allow the citizens of South Walton to vote on their future."
The word from Drake, however, was that he and new Sen. George Gainer want to hold public workshops to hear all sides of the issue.
The charter that has been drafted by ABSW is for a council/manager form of government, which is the most common. There would be seven council seats, and one of those seats would be a voting mayor. Those elected would serve staggered four-year terms.
The city would start with no ad valorem taxes and there would be a cap of 2.5 mils requiring a super majority to add or increase.
In Walton County, 89 percent of taxes are generated in South Walton, but with four of five county commissioners living in the north end of the county, those in the north are deciding how the money is spent.
"We have to be more focused and have a fair interpretation of codes," said Pleat.
Pleat said the ABSW team expects to work with Drake to schedule local delegation workshops. These workshops will likely be held at the Annex and will provide the opportunity for citizens to meet directly with Drake and Gainer to comment on the proposed referendum.
For more information on ABSW or to sign the petition visit www.abettersouthwalton.org/about-the-effort/.