By DOTTY NIST
Walton County commissioners took their first look at a Blue Mountain Beach Neighborhood Plan on July 14. Sometimes referred to as “the hybrid plan,” this particular document is the result of efforts by the Walton County Planning Commission, county planners, and residents to combine two previously proposed separate neighborhood plans for the community.
One of those proposals, known as BMB1, was initiated by a group of 23 beachfront property owners to apply to their lots only. The other, BMB2, was produced by other property owners in the subdivision, including a few owners of beachfront property, and intended to be applied to all 161 lots in the subdivision.
Proposed for inclusion by ordinance in the Walton County Land Development Code, the “hybrid” plan would create an overlay district for the community within a set boundary. Its stated intent is to preserve the character of the neighborhood, along with its historic development patterns and land uses, and with its current single-family-dwelling, Residential Preservation Area designation. As proposed, the document would set minimum and maximum lot sizes and establish provisions for setbacks, build-to lines, lot coverage, building height, allowable densities, and existing nonconforming uses. It would also establish “use mix” provisions for commercial and workplace uses by size and location, along with provisions for street widths, block sizes, parking requirements, landscaping, and access areas.
Gerry Demers, county director of development services, explained that the hybrid plan had been mediated between the two neighborhood groups. He added that the BMB2 proposal had been found compliant with county code by county staff. The BMB1 document had many similarities with that plan but included a provision that the lots included would not be subject to the BMB2 plan. Also, unlike the other proposal, the BMB1 plan stated the intent to “preserve the Blue Mountain Beaches for use by the property owners” of lots included in the plan, “establishing that the use is a permissive one and vested property rights shall not be abused.”
In January, the South Walton Tourist Development Council (TDC) had requested that the Walton County Board of County Commissioners (BCC) initiate a process to amend county code to recognize the public’s right to customary use of beach sections on which such use could be documented. In response to that request, the BCC directed staff to assemble all evidence in existence for that customary use.
Adoption of a neighborhood plan stating the establishment, not of customary use of the beach, but instead use based on permission of beachfront property owners, would, to say the least, represent a contradiction to any evidence of customary public use of the beach alongside the lots included in the BMB1 neighborhood plan.
Blue Mountain beachfront property owner Rodney Durand disagreed with one of Demers’ statements. He asserted that the proposal before the commissioners was “not the mediated plan.” He called it instead an arbitrated document that had been modified as the result of input from the TDC, the county attorney, and Demers and his staff. “This plan has not been presented to the entire neighborhood.” he argued.
Durand urged the BCC to postpone consideration of the hybrid document at least until a vote could be taken on it from property owners in the subdivision. “This issue should not be before you today,” he said.
Prior to BCC consideration of a neighborhood plan, Walton County’s neighborhood plan process requires a favorable vote on a plan by at least 66 percent of property owners who respond to ballots sent to them by certified mail. No final balloting has been taken on any of the proposed Blue Mountain Beach neighborhood plans with the exception of the BMB2 proposal, and the result of that effort was deemed to have met the 66-percent threshold.
Durand had concerns about neighborhood plan proposals that would, in his opinion, put restrictions on beachfront property owners without their consent.
Emmett Hildreth, a Blue Mountain Beach property owner for the past ten years, echoed Durand’s objections, calling for, prior to BCC consideration, a balloting of property owners in the subdivision on the hybrid plan. The document, he noted, had not been subject to a vote either by the BMB1 group or the BMB2 group.
“The whole thing has been flawed from the start,” complained Hildreth,” we will continue to object.”
He added, “We think it’s a bad ordinance.”
“If we get a revote and it passes,” District 2 Commissioner Ken Pridgen questioned Hildreth, “will you support it?”
Hildreth agreed that he would support the hybrid plan under those conditions.
“Common sense would dictate that there’s just one neighborhood there,” said Blue Mountain Beach homeowner Richard Fowlkes. Fowlkes praised the efforts of the citizens who had worked to produce a plan for the whole neighborhood, and had funded the substantial expenses involved in the county’s neighborhood planning process.
Fowlkes stated his objection to having a neighborhood plan “within a plan” for the group of beachfront property owners.
District 3 Commissioner Larry Jones expressed concern that the document being considered was “a third plan,” not either of the two proposals put forth by community property owners.
“Does that meet the intent of our ordinance?” Jones asked.
Mike Burke, county legal counsel, responded that it was indeed proper for the BCC to consider adoption of the hybrid ordinance, since it had been properly advertised that the BCC would be considering a Blue Mountain Beach neighborhood plan. Once a proposed ordinance reaches the BCC, commissioners have the authority to modify it, he commented. Burke added that there is no requirement to ballot property owners on this form of the ordinance, although there would be nothing to prohibit such a balloting.
“If you want to go to the hybrid (plan), fine,” commented Fowlkes, predicting that, however, if another vote is taken, “that kills the plan.” It was his opinion that the people who had worked to develop a proposal for the whole Blue Mountain Beach subdivision were at the end of their endurance and could not afford the expense of funding another mailing in connection with balloting.
Fowlkes reminded the commissioners that a vote of all subdivision property owners had already been taken on the BMB2 plan. “I think you should go back to the plan that was approved,” he said.
Susan Lucas, a beachfront property owner who helped create the hybrid proposal, said it had been based on the BMB2 document. Lucas stated that the hybrid plan only differs from the BMB2 plan in that provisions are included to accommodate beachfront property owners. The hybrid document provides for reduced setbacks on beachfront properties in connection with beach erosion, she explained, and it also provides additional parking flexibility for these properties.
Lucas agreed that a requirement for revoting would cause the plan to fail because of the related expense, which she estimated at $5,000.
Blue Mountain beachfront property owner Sherry Chase lodged objections to the hybrid document with regard to wording changes and alleged property rights violations in connection with the proposal. She also complained that some affected persons had not seen the plan.
Chase maintained that community residents had at one time agreed that the threshold for plan approval should be 66-percent favorable among those voting, not just among property owners. She argued that less than 40 percent of the subdivision had voted for the BMB2 document when the balloting was conducted.
“Eighty-five percent of beachfront property owners agreed to having our own plan,” Chase told the commissioners.
Chase further complained that the proponents of the BMB1 proposal had not been allowed to complete their plan, but had been stopped from proceeding with it. “We were not heard equally, and that’s why we formed our own group,” she said. She had concerns that, if the approximately 30 beachfront properties in the subdivision were included in a plan for the whole neighborhood, those properties might at some point be limited to one story, and taller buildings would be constructed on the other properties, overlooking the beachfront area.
An additional concern for Chase was that her home and some duplexes in the community had been built prior to Walton County’s adoption of a comprehensive plan, yet the hybrid document, she stated, would require them to be rebuilt according to comp plan requirements in the event the buildings succumbed to destruction by a storm or other force.
“I ask you not to pass this plan,” Chase concluded, also urging for the BMB1 group to be allowed to continue with their proposal.
Blue Mountain Beach resident Leonard Anderson said he had not been part of the neighborhood planning effort but that he supported the subdivision-wide proposal as “well-planned community development.”
“These people have worked their tails off,” he said.
District 1 Commissioner Scott Brannon said that his concern in connection with the neighborhood plan has been “how do you define a neighborhood?”
Demers responded that there is currently no language in the county’s neighborhood planning ordinance defining neighborhoods.
South Walton County resident Anita Page raised procedural questions in connection with requiring a new vote in the subdivision. She was doubtful of the basis for doing so. She suggested that the commissioners just readvertise consideration of the plan if they wanted to postpone it. “Advertise it as an amended ordinance,” she recommended.
Larry Jones commented that the BCC needed to be careful to protect the intent of the neighborhood planning ordinance. He had reservations about moving forward with the hybrid ordinance, which, he observed, had not been “vetted by those who are affected.”
Demers suggested providing the BCC with the BMB2 document, the one approved by the subdivision and that had been the basis for the hybrid plan, for purposes of comparison.
In agreement, the commissioners then approved a motion by Larry Jones to continue the public hearing on the ordinance to the July 28 BCC meeting, which is to begin at 4 p.m. and take place at the Walton County Courthouse in DeFuniak Springs. Plans are for the BMB2 ordinance to be provided to the commissioners for their review at that time.
Dotty Nist may be contacted at email@example.com.