Developer Jay Odom seeks legislature's help to change Freeport alcohol sales ordinance

Tom McLaughlin
Northwest Florida Daily News

FREEPORT — Developer Jay Odom wants to bring a little taste of The Villages to Walton County, but to do so he's going to have to find a way around a city ordinance that restricts the sale of alcoholic beverages within 1,000 feet of a school.

He has suggested changing two state laws to accomplish his goal, and enlisted the assistance of Walton County State Rep. Brad Drake to help him move a local bill through the Florida House.

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Jay Odom poses in his office in 2019. Odom is seeking state legislation to allow alcohol sales in his Hammock Bay development in Freeport.

Thus far, House Bill 1645 has encountered little resistance, having received unanimous support in two subcommittees and the State Affairs Committee. It is scheduled to be heard Thursday before the entire House.

The first amendment to the law would apply specifically to the city of Freeport.

It would allow the state's Department of Business and Professional Regulation to designate property within the city as a "specialty center" where alcoholic beverages could be served.

Under HB 1645, the specialty center could only be established "if a minimum of 25 acres adjacent to the specialty center was donated to the Walton County School Board" and "at the time of the donation the specialty center property and the donated property were owned by the same entity." 

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Jay Odom's Crystal Beach Development LLC gave almost 30 acres from his 3,000-acre Hammock Bay property to the Walton County School Board in 2013.

In 2013, Odom, through his Crystal Beach Development LLC, gave almost 30 acres from his 3,000-acre Hammock Bay property to the Walton County School Board.

Odom's gift carried two stipulations. The first being that an elementary or middle school be built on the site and that if construction had not gotten underway within 15 years, the property would revert to Odom.

Eight years into the grace period, school officials have begun planning a middle school on the Hammock Bay land. School District Director of Facilities Jill Smith said architects selected to design the school are scheduled to conduct a public workshop April 20. 

"In a perfect world, the school will open in August 2024," Smith said.

While the school was mulling its educational options and uses for the Odom gift, the developer was continuing his efforts to introduce amenities to the Hammock Bay community.

He said when he donated the land for the school, he "didn't think far enough ahead" about the potential for entertainment and economic development in Hammock Bay and is only now embarking upon the establishment of a Town Center he wants to wrap the specialty district around.  

The second amendment to the law proposed by Odom would allow alcohol sold within the newly created specialty center to be consumed anywhere within its boundaries.

It would prevent DPBR from denying a license to sell alcoholic beverages to businesses within the specialty center "based solely on distance from educational facilities" — so long as the shortest route to the main entrance of the school is at least 500 feet from the main entrance of the building seeking the license.

"The specialty center will be located within 500 feet of a proposed school," according to legislative staff analysis of HB 1645.

If the bill is passed Odom can move forward with his plans to bring in retail shops, restaurants and a brewery. He said the city of Freeport is considering building an amphitheater in the area. 

Odom said that preliminary plans call for the new middle school to be built on the back side of a 1,500 foot lot. He also noted that a general store constructed as a centerpiece of the Town Center currently sells alcoholic beverages.

"Most likely anything built will be 1,000 feet away from the specialty district," he said. "The existing general store would be the closest spot where alcohol could be sold, and it already exists."

Freeport City Manager Charlie Simmons said Odom has not brought his plans to amend state law, and thus change the city ordinance, before the city's governing body.

"They haven't run that up the flag pole yet," he said.

Odom said the city ordinance will not come into play until a school building actually exists on the land he donated to the School District.

Walton County School Superintendent Russell Hughes said he was unaware of the impact Drake's bill would have on the Freeport prohibition against the sale of alcoholic beverages within 1,000 feet of a school building.

"I don't know how to speak to lawmakers changing the law," he said. "I'm in the school business and the safety business to keep children safe. I'm not for anything that's going to bring harm to children." 

State Rep. Brad Drake, R-Eucheeanna, speaks during a session of the Florida House of Representatives.

Odom did present his proposal for the specialty center to Drake, R-Eucheeanna, and state Sen. George Gainer, R-Panama City, at a public forum the two hosted before the beginning of this year's legislative session. 

Drake said he sees Odom's vision as one of "a concept similar to" The Villages, "on a much smaller basis." The Villages is a vast senior living community in Sumter County famed for its golf cart communities and easily accessed entertainment centers.

"He wants to put in an entertainment zone where people can walk around and be mobile in an open environment with a beverage in your hand," Drake said.

Drake said by amending the law, Odom wants only to ensure that school officials consider design plans that take into account his development plans.

"He's already given the school property away, so if the school is built right up on him, he'd be out of luck," Drake said. "He's basically saying, 'we want to do what we're doing over here and you want to do what you're doing over there.' I think he wants to make sure both parties are shining as bright as stars." 

Gainer

Drake said his role in presenting the bill for passage is "making sure Florida statutes are adhered to."

Gainer said Monday he was surprised to hear Odom's suggested legislation had moved as far as it had in the House. 

"It sounded (at the delegation meeting) like a self-serving bill to me," he said. "I'd have felt much better about it if the mayor had called me to say he wanted it done."