Longtime residents of Northwest Florida probably weren't surprised to learn recently that Walton County is one of the fastest growing counties in the country according to U.S. Census statistics released late last month. After all, many local folks can remember when the long stretch of U.S. Highway 98 was a long green yawn of a drive, with few businesses or developments from one end of the county to the other.

Over the years, traffic lights have been added, along with numerous buildings ranging from gas stations to churches, strip malls and restaurants. Most of the residential development is tucked well off the main thoroughfare, but the evidence of growth is everywhere.

And officials say there's plenty more to come. The population grew 4.5 percent, according to the most recent statistics. The year before, it had grown 3.8 percent. Nearly 70,000 people now call Walton County home.

Among the factors expected to escalate growth is a the planned expansion of the military’s hypersonic weapon systems testing program, Imfeld said. County officials in both Walton and neighboring Okaloosa County have been warned to anticipate an influx of both military officials and contractors as the Gulf of Mexico area set aside for weapons testing – by far the nation’s largest – is greater utilized for this growing mission.

The south part of the county is growing, with seven new developments, including four residential and one mixed-use development, recently approved. But Freeport, as well as DeFuniak Springs and Mossy Head are also expanding. There have even been signs of new life in quiet rural Paxton.

Still to come is expected commercial growth along the U.S. Highway 331 corridor, which forms the north-south spine of Walton County. In late March, another section of highway running north out of Freeport was opened as part of an extensive four-laning project between DeFuniak Springs and U.S. Highway 98 in South Walton.

County officials say they need to be looking forward to "stay in front of the curve" instead of reacting to it after the fact.

That sounds like a good plan.