Walton planners delaying recommendation on expanding U.S. 331 apartment complex

Jim Thompson
Northwest Florida Daily News

FREEPORT — Residents near a planned expansion adding as many as 96 apartments to The Sanctuary at 331 Apartments will get a chance to potentially shape the future of the development at next month's meeting of the Walton County Planning Commission.

From the Oct. 14 meeting of the Planning Commission, the proposal will go to the Walton County Board of County Commissioners for a final decision on whether or not a development order should be issued for the expansion project.

The Planning Commission had been scheduled to make a final recommendation on the proposed 14.38-acre expansion of The Sanctuary at its Thursday meeting, but the group narrowly submitted to pressure from nearby residents to continue their consideration to their Oct. 14 meeting.

An aerial view from the website of The Sanctuary at 331 apartment complex shows its location off U.S. Highway 331 at the edge of Choctawhatchee Bay. A proposed 96-unit expansion of the complex has attracted neighborhood opposition.

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The decision to continue the issue to next month came down to a reluctant tie-breaking vote by Planning Commission Chairman Lee Perry after residents and their attorneys argued that they hadn't had time to review public records submitted in connection with the proposed addition to the development.

But in casting his vote, Perry offered something of an apology to representatives of the development, and made it clear that next month's meeting would be the last chance for residents to address the Planning Commission with their concerns.

"As much as I hate to delay y'all, I do think it would be best in the long run for the citizens to get a chance — and after that, they don't get any more — but I do think we should probably give them a shot, as much as I hate to do it to you ... ." Perry told representatives of The Sanctuary

From there, Perry told the residents that he "would suggest that the citizens that are asking for this get all the information you can (before the October meeting of the Planning Commission), because there won't be any other delays."

Hal Laird of nearby Bay Magnolia Lane complained that signs posted by the county regarding the planned expansion appeared quickly on the property, and with the recent Labor Day holiday weekend there was not sufficient time to seek out public records connected with the proposal.

"We just want to pump the brakes a little," said Laird, who called the issue "kind of a David versus Goliath scenario." He contended that the proposed new phase of development was part of a proposal originally approved by the county in 2009, and it was unclear to residents whether the new phase complied with what was approved then. 

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"It's a lot of moving parts," Laird contended, "and we just need time to wrap our heads around it. ... We're just trying to understand what's going on."

Balanced against Laird's concerns was a statement from Bob Baronti, a senior planner in the county Planning Department, who told Planning Commission members that the proposed expansion complies with local regulations.

"(We) believe that everything in the land development code was met," Baronti said. "If I didn't, we (county planning staff members) would be asking for a continuance."

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Frank Watson, an attorney representing a nearby property owner, told Planning Commission members that his client and other neighbors "haven't had time to digest exactly what we're talking about today, and I think if we were just given that time, we would be able to adequately represent whether we believe the project should or should not go forward."

On the other side of the issue, William Pope, owner of The Sanctuary property and applicant for the development order, argued that information on the proposed expansion has been readily available, and noted that even though it wasn't required, notices were sent out to nearby property owners in advance of a March meeting when the proposal was considered by the county's Technical Review Committee, an earlier step in the approval process.

Additionally, at least one neighborhood meeting arranged by representatives of The Sanctuary has been held, Pope told the Planning Commission.

"I think we've met with these people starting about a year ago. ... We have notified and notified and notified," Pope said.

"... (A)nd all of a sudden they show up and they're trying to delay this project a little bit more, I think," he added.

Nonetheless, Planning Commissioner Dan Cosson, who made the motion to continue consideration of the project, suggested that residents need some clarification on the proposed expansion.

"I believe we owe that to them," Cosson said. "They've got questions that they don't have answers to, and I believe it's our duty to support the citizens, just like it's our duty to support the developers."

As Thursday's meeting wound down, Pope got a subtle hint from Clay Adkinson, the county government's interim counsel, that it might be advisable to host a neighborhood meeting in advance of October's Planning Commission session.

The county has regularly encouraged such meetings, Adkinson said, "but we can't say 'do it' or 'don't do it'."