By DOTTY NIST
Two months ago, both plans and funding appeared to be in place for Walton County to acquire a small parcel on Natural Bridge Creek containing a locally-famous limestone arch formation. Now those plans have slowed down, but the indications are that the county’s interest in obtaining property in that area for preservation and public recreation is still strong.
Located approximately six miles east of Paxton near the Alabama line, the Natural Bridge Springs and Creek property gets its name from a limestone arch formation created by the springs running under a road. The property has always attracted visitors and has a history as a prehistoric campground. It contains a popular swimming hole formed by the springs.
According to research assembled by county planning staff, the property contained in past times a stage coach station, a health resort with hotels and saloons, a railroad spur logging community, and a grist mill site. Upland hardwood forests, considered unusual for the state, are found in the area of the springs and creek.
Originally Walton County became interested in purchasing a 19.3 acre parcel along the creek, and subsequently a Florida Forever grant application was prepared for acquisition of a 34-acre tract in the area of the springs and creek. The grant application was not submitted when the county learned that there was currently no funding for the Florida Forever program.
The 34 acres eyed by Walton County for acquisition in early spring 2009 was appraised at $863,000. In April, the Walton County Board of County Commissioners (BCC) had committed $76,000 from contingency funds in order to meet requirements for the grant. In May, after the possibility for the grant fell through, $676,766 in county preservation funds were also approved to go toward the purchase. With $118,000 to be contributed by the Northwest Florida Water Management District, funding for Walton County to obtain the property appeared to be sufficient.
On July 28, Walton County Administrator Ronnie Bell reported on meetings with owners of the Natural Bridge property. He relayed concerns by the owners that, if the county were to acquire the property proposed for purchase along the creek and springs, the value of adjacent non-waterfront property of those owners would be limited by that purchase. Bell’s recommendation resulting from the meetings was that the county consider acquiring a total of approximately 91 acres in that vicinity, tieing many natural features together, a tract he described as a smaller version of the Morrison Springs Park. His estimate of the purchase price was approximately $2 million.
Bell further recommended that the commissioners seek assistance from their state lobbyist in getting the Florida Forever Program funded for the new fiscal year and that they submit a grant for acquisition of the 91 acres once that funding was in place.
A motion by Walton County District 2 Commissioner Kenneth Pridgen in support of those recommendations was approved by unanimous vote.
Dotty Nist may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.