SANTA ROSA BEACH — A back-door deal for the purchase of the Highlands House bed and breakfast property has deprived Walton County from obtaining land it wanted to use to establish a public beach access on County Road 30A.
A group of people represented at a public meeting last week by attorney Mike Burke "got together and outbid the county" for the property, according to David Demarest, spokesman for the Walton County Tourist Development Council.
Demarest said the five or so neighbors who bought the Highlands House parcel offered about $3.3 million, or $300,000 more than the price the county had negotiated.
"The county wasn't given an opportunity to counter-offer," Demarest said.
County commissioners were scheduled to vote Tuesday to finalize the contract to buy the property, but instead removed the item from their meeting agenda. Officials seemed to have few details about the private sale.
"What we know for sure is the property got sold out from under us for significantly more than we would have paid for it," Demarest said.
County Attorney Sidney Noyes referred questions about the sale to Burke or Robert McGill, another attorney who had argued against the county's purchase of the Highlands House parcel at the commission's Nov. 13 meeting.
McGill said he knew nothing about the sale and that none of his clients was involved in the deal.
Burke did not return a phone call.
The county's plan had been to buy the approximately 1-acre parcel at 4193 W. County Highway 30A in Santa Rosa Beach, tear down the former bed and breakfast and establish public parking, beachgoer amenities and a pathway opening onto nearly 1,000 feet of public beach.
The parcel would have been paid for out of an approximately $8.5 million fund set aside for the TDC to purchase properties to enhance public beach access.
Burke stated at last week's meeting that his clients, the Hartzog family, questioned the county's claim to an easement that would have allowed it to provide public access to the beach.
McGill told commissioners that he represented several residential areas near the Highlands Home property who were opposed to the sale to the county. McGill said providing more parking would create more traffic congestion on 30A.
Tuesday's meeting was the first for newly sworn Walton County Commissioners Danny Glidewell and Trey Nick. The new-look board reaffirmed its commitment to having the TDC continue to seek out space along County Road 30A for parking and public access.