SANTA ROSA BEACH — It's a tight fit navigating the neighborhoods by vehicle in the bustling beach towns that make up South Walton County.

The infrastructure was laid long before settlers could fathom their quiet communities would one day become major tourist destinations.

It was the horse-and-buggy era when the first towns were established, according to Mac Carpenter, Walton County's director of planning and development. The width of the streets — nowadays packed with parked cars on either side road — was not a concern when building the original homes in Grayton Beach, Seagrove Beach and beyond.

"It's a series of public streets and alleyways and, in certain cases, the alleyways are 10 feet," Carpenter said. "Back when a horse and buggy was the only vehicle traveling down those roads, they didn't need to be nearly as wide. Those alleys were essential service roads for the houses that fronted on the actual public streets."

Sammy Sanchez, fire marshal for the South Walton Fire District, knows those tiny roads all too well. Navigating firetrucks down them during emergencies, he said, can be almost impossible.  

"There are some roads that are very challenging for us," Sanchez said. "We're always going to find a way in. We're going to find a way to get there. It may not be the easiest, it may not be the prettiest, but we will get to our customers in whatever form or fashion. Could things be easier for us? Sure. Absolutely. There are some things even residents can do to help."

Residents along County Road 30A began voicing their concerns about the difficulty first responders have after the iconic Red Bar caught fire in Grayton Beach on Feb. 13. The bar, located at 70 Hotz Ave., opened in the 1960s. The building, formally a country store, existed decades before.

"What a loss for the area," said Grace Marse, who was born, raised and still lives in South Walton. "My husband and I had our first date there when it was still the Butler store. We were married for 52 years. It was a special place for us.

"We're concerned now," she continued. "I've seen people park in those narrow side streets, blocking the areas into the residences. I've always been very concerned. There is no way firetrucks can make turns in that area."

Development along 30A began in the late 1800s after Army Maj. Charles T. Gray built a homestead along the coast, according to South Walton's website.

The federal government owned much of the land and few people had reason to settle there. The soil was too sandy to farm and there were better timberlands inland. The closest settlement was at Point Washington to the north.

Five years later, Army Gen. William Miller and William Wilson moved their families to what is now Grayton Beach and mapped out where the village's streets and blocks would be built. Named after Maj. Gray, Grayton Beach celebrated its 110-year anniversary in 2000.

Reaching Grayton Beach at that time was not easy, the website said. There were no bridges over the Choctawhatchee Bay, and what roads existed were merely sand trails.

In 1913, W. H. Butler and his son made the day-long trip from DeFuniak Springs to Grayton Beach and ended up staying. W. H. Butler decided to start a resort project and bought most of what is now Grayton Beach. The Butler family operated the town’s general store and a dance hall — the site of the former Red Bar.

Access to Grayton Beach became easier with the construction of U.S. Highway 98 and the U.S. Highway 331 bridge over Choctawhatchee Bay in the 1930s. Grayton began to boom.

Sanchez said it wasn't until the 1990s when the South Walton Fire District began its Fire Prevention Bureau. Before then, there was no regulation on how wide roads in the area needed to be built. 

Some of those areas include Inlet Beach, Seagrove Beach, Seacrest, Alys Beach and others.

The state code for new developments now require at least 20 feet to allow emergency vehicles to navigate, Sanchez said. It's unlikely, however, anything could be done about widening the old roads, which are typically 10 to 15 feet.

"Going into some of these neighborhoods and saying they need to change their streets is almost impossible," he said. "The financial burden, not to mention the politics involved with it, would be too difficult to do.

"Now we're part of the Walton County Technical Review Committee, so we review the projects in its entirety to make sure it meets all the land development codes and requirements. One of the things I look for is if the roads are wide enough for us to get in and, two, if there are fire hydrants in the area."

Sanchez said to prepare for emergencies in the hard-to-reach areas, firefighters study alternate routes and methods of access the neighborhoods and business communities. They also try to educate residents about keeping trees trimmed and constructing fences farther back in lawns to make more room for the trucks.

While the South Walton Fire District is focused on keeping the roads wide, Carpenter said the county Planning Department is actually looking to do the opposite by bringing narrow roads back to South Walton with new construction.

"Streets were not as wide as they became after 1945 when our country became more car-centric," Carpenter said. "As cars developed higher speeds, safety required the roadways to be wider and the right of ways to be wider. We learned that roadways don't need to be nearly as wide as we originally thought they did.

"If you look at the new urbanism developments in the past 20 years, they typically have smaller travel lanes," he added. "Like 10 feet as opposed to 12-foot-wide lanes. The sidewalks, bike lanes and multi-use lanes are really what we're moving to."

Carpenter said although the building code is 20 feet as Sanchez explained, some can be as narrowl as 15 feet. Still, Carpenter said, getting firetrucks down the roads must be addressed.

"One of the things we are absolutely required to do is make sure our public responders can actually serve those areas where they need to go," Carpenter said. "No development is approved without our fire chief and Sammy Sanchez. They have to sign off on accessibility for their vehicles because life safety is paramount.

"We do have a large amount of build environment where we don't have as much as we'd like to have in Grayton. There are other areas that have narrower streets. We're going to absolutely have at least 10 feet of pavement and at least 15 feet for travel lanes and right of ways. There will probably be lots of sections where we have 10 feet of pavement on either side of the road, 20 feet total."