'Trying to do this a little bit smarter': Walton begins review of residential proposals

Jim Thompson
Northwest Florida Daily News

FREEPORT — Walton County's Technical Review Committee (TRC) sent two proposals that would put a significant number of residential structures on small tracts back to their respective developers Wednesday for more work.

The TRC also gave the go-ahead to a third project that would do the same thing, but whose developer did extensive community outreach that quelled opposition.

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The project that got a green light is a plan to develop 13 multi-family condominiums and 10,000 square feet of commercial space on 2 acres at the intersection of Walton County Road 30A East and Elegance Lane between Seagrove Beach and Alys Beach. The Grace Point project is set to be located among similar adjacent developments.

Designated by the county as a minor development, the project by JS Partners Grace LLC, which has a Santa Rosa Beach address and a Leesburg, Georgia, mailing address, can proceed when the developer obtains the needed construction and related permits.

No objections

The development company was represented Wednesday by David Smith of Innerlight Engineering. There was no public comment offered on the proposal at the meeting.

"I take this as a sign of support, that no one's standing here with torches and pitchforks with objections to what's being proposed," said Walton County Planning Director Mac Carpenter, who noted the work that Smith's company and the developer had done in the community regarding the proposal.

"You've done a lot of hard work working with the community," Carpenter added as he and the rest of the TRC voted unanimously to allow the project to proceed once some outstanding concerns, including clarification that the commercial space will be retail space and not office space, are addressed.

This tract at the corner of Payne Street and South Payne Street in Miramar Beach could be developed into single-family vacation rental housing under a proposal being reviewed by Walton County planners.

Sent back to the drawing board Wednesday was the proposed Dolphin Drive subdivision, where 14 lots on which homes would be built by contractors retained by lot purchasers, are proposed for a 2.52-acre tract at Dolphin Drive and Charming Way, between U.S. 98 and Blue Mountain Beach just north of 30A.

Carpenter took issue in particular with the environmental preservation plan for the tract, which would place areas designated for such preservation within feet of the backside of houses built on the 14 lots. Carpenter suggested to a representative of Emerald Coast Associates, the engineering firm for the project, that homeowners and builders over time might be likely to encroach on areas that had been designated for environmental protection.

"Pretty soon," Carpenter suggested, a homeowner might say, "'I need a barbecue grill, and I need some pavers,' " thus compromising the protected areas.

"If y'all are not building these houses, whoever comes in to build them is going to maximize the buildable area ... ," pushing exterior walls out farther than had been envisioned by the developer.

The recreational vehicle park in the background could become short-term vacation rental housing, like the unit pictured in the foreground, under a proposal submitted to Walton County planning officials.

The Dolphin Drive proposal also got some pushback from a resident of the adjoining Hidden Highlands subdivision. Gary Fleming told TRC members that he was concerned about the potential for flooding in his neighborhood, which is lower than surrounding areas. 

Fleming also suggested that the required environmental preservation area should be moved, to provide a more expansive buffer between the proposed Dolphin Drive subdivision — which he expects to become short-term vacation rental housing — and the surrounding neighborhood.

"Our lots are bigger. We have a different feel in the neighborhood (Hidden Highlands as compared to Dolphin Drive)," Fleming added as he referenced "all the things that come with short-term rentals."

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The county, with considerable public backing, has been moving to address issues associated with short-term vacation rentals, which is allowed in all areas zoned for single-family housing. Among the issues being addressed are high levels of occupancy in single large structures and parking issues on surrounding streets.

The developer and engineer for the Dolphin Drive project will get another chance in front of the TRC at the committee's Nov. 17 meeting, under terms of a unanimous decision that issues raised Wednesday be addressed at the upcoming session.

Like the Grace Point project, Dolphin Drive is a minor development, and can proceed once it gets TRC approval as long as the developer ensures that the proper construction and related permits are in place. 

'A lot of bad design'  

Also set to come back in front of the TRC, but at its Dec. 1 meeting, is a proposal from local development company Destin Land Connection to establish a nine-lot residential development on 1.25 acres at the corner of Payne Street and South Payne Street in Miramar Beach south of U.S. 98.

Plans are to build short-term vacation rental homes on the tract, which is currently home to a recreational vehicle park. There are a number of short-term vacation rental properties in the immediate area, including one development directly across Payne Street.

During Wednesday's meeting, Carpenter raised questions as to whether there was adequate access to one of the nine planned lots, and then launched into a broader discussion.

"I'm not talking about code compliance," Carpenter told the engineer working with Destin Land Connection. "I'm talking about bad design. We've got a lot of bad design throughout our county that may have occurred at some point in the last 40 years."

But today, Carpenter continued, what county planners are "trying to do is make sure we're not perpetuating patterns that may have existed in the past. ... We're trying to do this a little bit smarter today than we may have done in the past."

Holding meetings via Zoom teleconferencing 

Carpenter continued with that theme as the TRC began its consideration of a plan to return to offering two-way Zoom teleconferencing capabilities to gather public comment at its meetings.

The TRC, along with other county government bodies, including the Walton County Board of County Commissioners, had offered Zoom access and participation in meetings for months as part of the county's response to the coronavirus pandemic as a means to keep people out of public gatherings to help slow the spread of the disease.

In April, however, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis issued an executive order suspending all measures taken by local governments in response to the pandemic, which put an end locally to Zoom access to meetings.

Counties did, however, retain the option to decide on their own whether to continue allowing Zoom access to public meetings. That access has since been made available to County Commission meetings, and the commissioners have empowered other county government bodies to develop their own Zoom polices, in line with guidance from them.

A sign posted at the corner of Payne Street and South Payne Street in Miramar Beach announces the Wednesday meeting of the Walton County Technical Review Committee, where a proposal to turn the tract behind the sign into a residential development was considered.

County planners are developing a policy, and it will be in front of the TRC at its Nov. 15 meeting to give all committee members a chance to review it, Carpenter said Wednesday.

Barbara Morano, representing the nonprofit South Walton Community Council, urged the TRC to put a Zoom policy in place. She noted among other things that with regard to minor development orders like the ones considered Wednesday, TRC meetings offer the only opportunity for public comment.

In responding, Carpenter said, "I think Zoom participation provides an important component to the work this committee does, so when this comes up, I expect that I'll be supporting it, and I hope that the rest of our committee members will also."

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Carpenter also noted that "there are some public comments from time to time that bring things to light that may not be evident in the (county planning staff's) review process, and I always consider that ... ."

In other remarks connected to how the digital arena can impact the local planning process, Carpenter took issue with a recent social media comment from someone who noted that the TRC routinely approves submitted development projects, and questioned the need for the committee.

"I'd like to invite that commenter to come and sit with us for a whole day and see exactly how this works," Carpenter said.

He added that the job of the TRC is not to deny projects, because the property owners who come before them do have rights to develop their property.

Carpenter said the panel's job is to ensure that when a project is approved by the committee or sent to the Planning commission and the County Commission for final action, it is in compliance with the county's comprehensive plan and land development code.

"A project can stay at the TRC essentially until it's ready to be approved," Carpenter said. "That may be frustrating for some of our public, that we (vote to) continue a project (for further consideration at a subsequent meeting) that some ... would like to just see denied on its first appearance at this committee, and I understand that."

But Carpenter added, "I'm comfortable that we have systems in place such that whatever is being proposed will get properly reviewed ... ."