Walton commissioners approve zoning change for 10,000-seat amphitheater with walking trails

Jim Thompson
Northwest Florida Daily News

SANTA ROSA BEACH — It took only a matter of seconds for the Walton County Board of County Commissioners to approve a zoning change and land-use map amendment for 220 acres in the south end of the county. And no wonder, considering it was the county's own request they approved.

The commission's unanimous vote Tuesday clears the way for a county-planned 10,000-seat amphitheater, construction of two roads linking Chat Holley Road with U.S. Highway 98, passive recreational opportunities such as walking trails, and stormwater control and wetlands preservation measures.

Specifically, the commission vote changes the zoning of the acreage from two residential classifications and a conservation classification to an institutional classification. The vote also changes the future land use designations from residential and conservation uses to public facilities and institutional uses.

Work on some aspects of the massive project should begin soon, according to County Commissioner Danny Glidewell, an enthusiastic backer of the initiative. 

The overall project, which Glidewell likened to the popular 24-acre Cascades Park in Tallahassee but on a much larger scale, "has the opportunity to be something that will be a showcase and an example for other areas and other jurisdictions," he said Thursday.

Related:Walton commissioners reject rezoning request for 40 new homes on Nellie Drive

Last year:Walton County set to use $8.9 million land purchase for possible amphitheater and lake

The county bought property — a collection of 14 separate tracts a short distance north of U.S. 98 along Chat Holley Road, west of County Road 393, and south of Nellie Drive — a little more than a year ago.

The purchase was funded with $2 million in county reserve funds dedicated to land preservation and $6.9 million in Walton County Tourist Development Council (TDC) reserve funds.

The TDC is funded with proceeds of a 5% "bed tax" charged to visitors staying in accommodations south of Choctawhatchee Bay that raises millions of dollars each year.

TDC dollars will be used to build the amphitheater, and in terms of other funding for the project, Glidewell said the county has already received $14 million from the state for construction of a lake on the tract and for wetlands protection. That work is now awaiting permits, which should be in hand soon, to get started.

Glidewell said other water-related work on the tract will include restoration of the "cypress domes" on the acreage, forested wetlands that provide a natural means of enhancing water quality.

According to Glidewell, state funding for the project is tied to Florida's interest in improving water quality in the bay, which has been compromised due to fast-paced residential and other development.

Additionally, Glidewell said there is a little over $3 million in the state budget now under consideration in the Legislature for work on one of the two roads on the tract, an extension of Nellie Drive to U.S. 98.

Glidewell credited state Sen. George Gainer, R-Panama City,  and state Rep. Brad Drake, R-Eucheeanna, who represent Walton County in the Legislature, with steering state funding to the project. 

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While Glidewell touts the project for its expected stormwater control and water quality enhancements, and as hedge against the residential and commercial development now running rampant nearby, he is also enthusiastic about the planned amphitheater.

"We need something to diversify our tourist experience," Glidewell said last year as the county set up its purchase of the acreage, comments that he repeated Thursday.

An informational packet on the land use and zoning map change prepared for commissioners by the Planning Department included one email expressing the views of a number of neighboring residents.

An aerial photograph, with Chat Holley Road at the top and U.S. Highway 98 at the bottom, is overlaid with graphics outlining a county plan for  a collection of tracts totaling more than 200 acres. The plans show an amphitheater, at left center, along with two new roads, and at left, a stormwater management facility.

The email noted a neighborhood concern "in regards to the safety of our neighborhood" in connection with the amphitheater and the passive recreational opportunities that will bring large numbers of people to the area.

"While we as a community generally support the development of the land behind us, if developed correctly, we are all uneasy about the concertgoers (or even persons utilizing the nature trails) 'wandering' the wrong direction and into someone’s back yard," the email stated.

The email also suggested that the county include construction of a fence between its project and the adjoining neighborhood to help "ward off anyone trying to trespass after a night of good-time concert drinking."

The email added that the county should include a community swimming pool in its plans. A pool, "is so needed for recreation, money, school leagues, and something for the locals to do since the beach is always crowded!" the email stated.