SANTA ROSA BEACH — Around 30 residents and local and state advocates attended the South Walton Community Council's seminar Wednesday night on smart growth in Walton County.
The evening included presentations from officials of 1,000 Friends of Florida, a nonprofit organization based in Tallahassee that watches over growth management statewide, and local attorney Steve Hall.
According to Thomas Hawkins, policy and planning director for 1,000 Friends, walkable communities are key to developing sustainable urban areas.
Hawkins also said that it is up to the people of Walton County, which was described during the meeting as one of the fastest growing counties in the state, to have a say in the development planning of their community.
"In the last decade, the Florida Legislature has worked to make it harder for people to participate in the process," he said. "We use to have a state agency called the Department of Community Affairs that checked to see whether local plans for growth matched state law, and it doesn't do that anymore. So there's much less oversight in process to make sure that plans meet the requirements of state law."
Hawkins also cited the recently passed House Bill 7103, which he said makes it harder for citizens to have a say development plans of local governments.
"It has not yet been signed by the governor," he said. "It would require (citizens) to pay a city's or county's attorney fees if they lost (a developmental lawsuit), which makes the prospect of enforcing your rights into the law very risky and very expensive."
John Reinchenbach, board member of South Walton Community Council, said the meeting was about laying out the numbers and showing what the future development of the county and state might look like.
"We just felt the citizens need to understand what's going on in the county," Reinchenbach said.
He added that urban-styled communities that were dense but still left surrounding "green spaces" untouched would improve Walton's ability to sustain its growing population, while also preserving natural resources.
In 2016, 1,000 Friends of Florida put together a report describing what Florida's population might look like by 2070. The group estimated that by then about 13 million more people will call the Sunshine State home. Also presented was that in 2010, Walton County's population was around 55,000. By 2070 the group estimated that number to jump to 144,000.
"Not every (County Commission) meeting is critical, but when you see a project or development in your area that is concerning to you, go and voice your concern," Reinchenbach said.