Walton County and Eastern Lake beach parcel owner still millions of dollars apart
SANTA ROSA BEACH — Walton County officials will meet with the owner of a 3-acre tract of beach near County Road 30A in a fast-track effort to try to purchase the property, which the county wants for public beach access and to help preserve a rare and environmentally imperiled coastal dune lake.
The county has two appraisals in hand, which average to a $6 million valuation for the property. But on the other side of any potential deal, property owner Peter Russell and his 187 San Roy Beach Holdings LLC have in hand an $18 million appraisal of the tract.
The parcel, which includes 300 feet of beachfront, lies between the Gulf of Mexico and Eastern Lake about two miles east of Seagrove Beach.
Eastern Lake is one of 15 coastal dune lakes in Walton County, which are rare across the world. The majority of the county's coastal dune lakes have suffered some degradation due to development along CR 30A.
Also factoring into the county's interest in the property is a lack of public beach. Just a few of the 26 miles of beachfront property in the county are available for public use, either at county-owned beach access points or in state parks along the Gulf of Mexico.
Gary Shipman, the local attorney representing Russell with regard to the beach tract, told commissioners point-blank at their Tuesday meeting that his client will not sell the property for $6 million. And beyond that, Russell has pressed the county to have a deal for the tract in place by Dec. 31.
"He's not going to sell for $6 million," Shipman said, noting that there are other offers for the property. "I mean, frankly, based on what I know of some other offers that are out there, he'd be foolish to do that."
Use of the property can, however, be somewhat problematic in that it serves as an outfall for Eastern Lake, meaning that when the lake gets full, excess water flows across the beach into the Gulf, and that saltwater from the Gulf can also flow into the lake.
That is the reason for the ecological rarity of the lake and the surrounding area.
The county, in the meantime, is bound under its property purchase policies to its $6 million appraised value of the tract, unless a "supermajority" of the commission — four of its five members — approves a purchase at some higher price.
"We'll pay $6 million today, and that only takes three votes, and the other (required supermajority vote) takes four," Commissioner Danny Glidewell told Shipman prior to the commission decision to talk further about the purchase of the tract.
Under the commission's unanimous Tuesday vote, County Administrator Larry Jones, along with newly appointed Commission Chairman Mike Barker and interim county counsel Clay Adkinson will meet with Shipman and Russell in the coming days to determine whether a deal can be made.
They will report back to the commission at some point prior to the informally imposed Dec. 31 deadline. If a deal is formulated and it comes in above the county's $6 million limit, an approval will require the affirmative votes of four of the five commissioners.
The commission's decision to hold further discussions with Russell came after Shipman suggested strongly that his client "is going to want to talk with somebody" about any potential county purchase of the property.
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Public comment on the proposed property purchase at Tuesday's meeting was focused, in part, on the possibility of the county using "eminent domain" to obtain the property.
Government entities can use eminent domain to acquire property as long as it can be shown that the property will be used for public purposes. Under that scenario, the county would be required to pay 130% of the average of two appraisals of the tract, with either party first being able to challenge the other's appraisal.
With the two existing appraisals of the property, assuming neither appraisal would be challenged, a purchase price under eminent domain would be $15.6 million.
Shipman all but rejected eminent domain as a path forward, telling commissioners Tuesday that "at the end of the day, I think you would be better off just buying the property at a negotiated number."
Glidewell also spoke out against the county pursuing eminent domain for the parcel.
"I'm not interested in eminent domain," he said. "That's seizing people's property by strong-arming."
Two people who spoke at Tuesday's meeting suggested that Russell was "strong-arming" the county for a quick deal on the tract. One of them was local real estate professional Nina Horn, who nonetheless also told commissioners that their appraisal was too low.
"I don't really agree that $6 million would be enough," Horn said, who called the property "priceless in the way that it does give a good environmental impact for this county, to give the beach back to the people."
"... (Y)ou've just got to have a meeting of the minds with Mr. Russell on the price," Horn continued, adding that Russell is "strong-arming you to close by the end of the year."
Horn also suggested that the county do some strong-arming of its own with Russell.
"You tell him when you will close, and for the amount you want to close for, because this county really needs this beachfront," she said.
"Do you want to see a 13,000-square-foot house out there obstructing the view," Horn asked, "or do you want to see the beauty of that (water) flow, of that inlet, going backward and forward?"