'If you don't fix it now, we're screwed': Walton officials face criticism in Miramar Beach

Jim Thompson
Northwest Florida Daily News

MIRAMAR BEACH — Walton County Board of County Commissioners Chairman Trey Nick and other county officials who attended a public forum last week on upcoming infrastructure projects in Miramar Beach were strongly urged by residents to get a handle on burgeoning development in the beachside community — particularly traffic and stormwater management — and to hold developers accountable when their projects become problematic.

"Miramar Beach is a mess. If you don't fix it now, we're screwed," a woman who attended the forum told the officials.

In addition to Nick, the two-hour meeting was attended by Commissioners Tony Anderson and Danny Glidewell, Walton County Planning Director Mac Carpenter and Walton County Traffic Operations Engineer Chance Powell.

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The resident, like others who spoke, were focused in part on plans by Davis Development, a metropolitan Atlanta-based multi-family housing developer and management company, and Destin-based corporation The Garden of Destin Inc., for a proposed large mixed-use development.

Planned for 25 acres at the current site of the Golf Garden on the north side of U.S. Highway 98 just west of Holiday Road, the Botanic Miramar project is slated to include 321 apartments, a convenience store/gas station, a fast-food restaurant and more than 16,000 square feet of retail space.

As traffic moves along U.S. Highway 98 in Miramar Beach on Friday, a sign announces a new condominium development, The Grove at Seascape Resort. Walton County officials last week heard from residents of Miramar Beach concerned about development-related pressures on the community.

"I've done pled the blood of Jesus all over that thing, and it ain't being built," the woman told Nick and the other officials at the meeting, delivering a thinly veiled threat to work to stop the development. "I'm just going to tell you right now, you're not going to dig it (Golf Garden) up and put an apartment complex in there."

Among the woman's concerns, which were shared by most of the people who spoke at Wednesday's forum, was the potential for the development of Botanic Miramar and other projects, including individual residential development, to flood their homes and neighborhoods as stormwater runs off of those projects into the surrounding areas.

"That area needs to stay a green space," the woman said of the Golf Garden property. "When that area is built out, we are going to flood."

From there, she began a theme that would continue throughout the session, noting that none of the county's five commissioners lives in Miramar Beach.

Anderson, whose district includes the community, lives a few miles away in Santa Rosa Beach. However, commissioners are elected to serve on an at-large basis, although they must live in the district from which they run for office.

Regarding any future flooding, the woman said, "I know it ain't gonna bother y'all one bit, because y'all don't live down here. ... I have neighbors who literally ... (have) had to replace carpet three or four times. ... The drainage is horrible everywhere."

At the root of the issue, many people contended, is a perceived willingness by commissioners — who must approve development orders for projects —  to grant variances to developers or otherwise not pay attention to development regulations.

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"Hold these developers' feet to the fire, don't give them a variance," said Donna Johns, who serves in elected office with the South Walton Mosquito Control District. "These developers have a way of feeling that they can come in here and do whatever they want, and that's just not right. They are destroying this area. ... We've got to be strong."

Johns warned officials that failing to control development and its associated stormwater issues could have dire consequences in the event of a hurricane or other emergency, as flooded roads hinder evacuation of Miramar Beach.

"You put all that (currently planned development) there, we're going to be really in trouble if there's a hurricane or a fire," Johns said.

Officials also heard frustration expressed over what is seen by many residents as deference to the needs and desires of tourists who routinely pack the condominiums and hotel rooms lining Scenic Gulf Drive and the nearby U.S. 98.

Condominiums line Scenic Gulf Drive in Miramar Beach, where development pressures have raised concerns for many residents.

Ron Clark, president of the homeowners' association for Port Of Call, a Scenic Gulf Drive neighborhood that includes short-term vacation rentals, told officials that they "have to respect the people who have been in the area, who have lived here for years, and in my opinion, there's not enough respect for that."

"It's all become about the tourists, the money," Clark said. "You have to do a better job of trying to get some kind of balance so that the people who live here don't have to suffer because of the people who come in (for vacation)."

Also speaking was Alan Osborne, who has been at odds with commissioners and other county officials over drainage issues at Sandestin. Osborne suggested that commissioners have abdicated their responsibilities and left it up to residents to bring problems to their attention rather than ensuring that county regulations are enforced. 

"Y'all are responsible for most of our problems because you've passed it on to us," Osborne argued. "We have to report the problem. You're not going to fix it on your own. ... So after the developer gets signed off (with a development approval from the county) and there are massive problems ... we have to figure out how to tell you and make you listen that the developer didn't do what they were supposed to do. And you know what you're going to do? Nothing."

Osborne suggested that the county has reached the "point ... of diminishing returns" with regard to development in terms of increased traffic and stormwater issues making the area less attractive to potential visitors and residents.

"More is not always better," Osborne added.

"Maintaining a high quality of life, and (giving people) the desire to not only vacation here, but to retire here and invest here is the real measure of whether you're doing the right thing," he continued, "(and) y'all ain't."

The commissioners and other officials had no immediate reaction to the criticism they faced, but Nick did say that he is interested in having another meeting with Miramar Beach residents.