Going mobile: Walton County commission taking it slow with mobility plan and fee
SANTA ROSA BEACH — In a move aimed to ensure the public has ample opportunity for comment on a proposed mobility plan and fee structure that would guide the county's transportation infrastructure development for the next 20 years, Walton County commissioners informally indicated Tuesday that they will take the proposal on the road.
An ordinance associated with the plan, which outlines 200 projects across the county, with hundreds of millions of dollars of the eventual total cost slated to come from a countywide mobility fee — along with state and federal sources to cover a remaining share of the costs — was slated for a public hearing and a first reading Tuesday.
But before they got too deep into the public hearing, commissioners indicated that they wanted to hold additional first readings of the ordinance and the mobility plan in the city's municipalities — Freeport, DeFuniak Springs and Paxton — where they were concerned that residents might not have had sufficient opportunity to weigh in on the proposal.
More on the plan:Walton County mobility plan moves closer to commission consideration
As commissioners noted, the projects, some of which include widening roads, will impact the municipalities. Additionally, there are provisions for the municipalities to become involved in the mobility plan should they choose to do so.
No specific schedule for those first readings was presented Tuesday, but holding those sessions could push back a second reading of the ordinance and plan, and its eventual adoption, which had been scheduled for a May commission meeting. Whenever the plan is adopted — if it is adopted — collections of the mobility fee could not begin for 90 days from that adoption.
The mobility fee would be charged in connection with new residential or commercial development, with proceeds slated to be spent in the area of the county — north, central or south — in which they were collected.
Commissioners still have questions
The plan has been part of the work of Walton County Planning and Development Services for the past five years, with a more recent assist from NUE Urban Concepts, a Florida-based transportation planning firm. In recent months, it has been the subject of a number of public workshops, but commissioners on Tuesday were reluctant to take a next step.
"There are still a lot of questions I have," said Commissioner Tony Anderson, who added that there also were still a lot of things he wanted to hear from residents.
"I think we need to tap the brakes a little bit," Anderson said.
Still, there was some news made Tuesday in connection with the plan, as the future of one of its most controversial elements — a proposed two-lane road linking U.S. Highway 98 and Walton County Road 30A through the Point Washington State Forest — was placed in some doubt.
Currently, there are only two links between U.S. 98 and CR 30A, but conservationists and others in the county have protested using the state forest, as proposed in the mobility plan, as an additional cut-through between the two heavily used routes.
At Tuesday's meeting, Walton County Planning Director Mac Carpenter, acknowledging that public concern, suggested that commissioners, who would have wide latitude in setting priorities with the mobility plan, move the forest road from being an element of the plan into a "needs" category that might not ever be funded.
Public airs concerns, opinions
In other developments, commissioners continued to hear doubts expressed about putting the onus for transportation funding on new development. Among those making that point was local attorney Gary Shipman, who told commissioners he was appearing on behalf of the Walton County Small Business Association and on his own behalf.
“The better way to do this thing would be to fund it with a sales tax,” Shipman argued, noting that revenue from a new half-cent sales tax — which would require voter approval — would come mostly from visitors.
As a result, Shipman argued, the people who are creating the problems the mobility plan is designed to address would be footing the majority of the bill for projects.
Also, Shipman contended that a sales tax, inasmuch as it wouldn't necessarily be tied to a specific plan, "gives you a lot more discretion on what you can do."
On the other side of the issue was Barbara Morano, a resident of southern Walton County who has been outspoken on the mobility plan.
“You put the sales tax in, you’re letting the developers off the hook,” she told commissioners. “I think the mobility fee as it stands is fair.”