Walton County Commissioners voted Tuesday to purchase the closed Highlands House bed and breakfast so that they can use the property it occupies to create access to nearly 1,000 feet of public beach.

“This is a perfect example of something we can make work and make work for everybody,” said County Commissioner Sara Comander.

The commission, with Chairman Bill Chapman absent, voted 3-1 to use $3 million in Tourist Development Council funds to buy the approximately one-acre parcel at 4193 W. County Highway 30A in Santa Rosa Beach. Cecilia Jones voted against the purchase.

Plans call for the building to be removed so that parking can be provided and a structure to house amenities like bathrooms constructed.

Objections to the purchase came from two sources.

One lawyer, who said he represented 1,360 Highland House neighbors, objected to adding parking on an already overburdened roadway. A second stood to question the county’s claim to ownership of a parcel behind the building the public will use to get to the beach.

Robert McGill, the attorney representing the residents of nearby subdivisions, argued that a 2014 parking study had advised the county not to add parking on the section of 30A in question and noted there were already a number of beach walkways in the area.

McGill and his clients were rebuked by acting Commission Chair Tony Anderson.

“Everybody says, buy more beach property,” Anderson said. “And every time we bring up something people from that neighborhood say ‘well don’t buy it here.’ ”

Anderson said he would have been more agreeable to listen to arguments from the neighboring community had passage of HB 631 not made public beach access a Walton County priority.

“We’re playing by a different set of rules now,” he said. “If this was a 75-foot piece of property I would not feel so highly about it, but this is nearly 1,000 feet of beach.”

Attorney Mike Burke disputed the county’s claim that it owned enough property behind the Highlands House structure to provide a public walkway from its planned facility to the beach.

As County Attorney Sidney Noyes explained, the county acquired ownership of the property behind the former bed and breakfast through a government easement, and maintains possession of a parcel of land along the western border of the lot behind Highlands House. It still maintains, Noyes said, access across property owned by the Hartzog family.

Burke, who represents the Hartzog family, questioned the county's claim. He said easements like those the county wants to use for beach goer access, are, in the opinion of his clients, intended to allow for roads or utilities, “not pedestrian beach access.”

Noyes did not respond to an inquiry about the potential property dispute. Burke did not return a phone call before press time Wednesday.

Jay Tusa, the executive director of the Walton County TDC, told commissioners that he believed the construction of the public access should be done alongside a "revamping" of the area around the Highlands House property, to include answering parking questions, studying signalization of the intersection of 30A and County Road 393 and keeping abreast of neighbor concerns.

"I think if we put the right effort into it, we can get the result we want out of it," he said.

County Commissioners also voted Tuesday to accept four nominees to sit on the TDC board of directors.

Tom Cooper of the South Walton Fire District was selected to serve as an elected official. Jennifer Frost with Resort Quest was selected as the owner/operator representative, restaurateur and business owner. Jim Shirley will represent tourism-related industries and Sherry Hamilton from Ayls Beach will serve as a tourism related/owner operator.