By DOTTY NIST
A detailed report on property purchased by Walton County a little over a year ago, known as the Chat Holley parcel, was recently provided to county administration and others in the community. The document includes a nine-page timeline of the history of the property, located at the southwestern corner of U.S. 331 and Chat Holley Road, a two-lane county road, near the southern end of the Clyde B. Wells Bridge. Events beginning in 2003 and continuing all the way into 2011 are dealt with.
The report was provided by and compiled under the supervision of Randy Gardner, a Walton County certified general contractor and architect. Gardner serves on the Walton County Planning Commission and has done so since 2005. He is also a former member and chairman of the Scenic Corridor Design Review Board.
A vacant half-acre parcel at the intersection was acquired by the county in October 2010 for the purpose of a road improvement project on Chat Holley Road, to include a turn lane at the U.S. 331/Chat Holley intersection. Recently, issues raised about the acquisition of the parcel led the Walton County Board of County Commissioners (BCC) to direct an independent investigation of the purchase. A document resulting from that investigation has been provided but not yet taken up by the BCC.
Randy Gardner’s report includes 40 exhibits as a basis for the timeline on the parcel. Among those are maps, correspondence, news articles, design plans, and other records. Gardner states that the exhibits were supplemented by interviews conducted by him.
According to Gardner’s report:
A recommendation was provided by the state Department of Transportation (DOT) that Walton County improve the intersection in question with an eastbound turn lane featuring 225 feet of storage on Chat Holley Road. This is evidenced by an August 2009 e-mail from a DOT official stating that, six years previous, DOT had recommended the turn lane as a contingency for Walton County’s pursuit of a traffic signal on U.S. 331 at the intersection. The correspondence also states that in September 2007 a DOT study had recommended a left-turn lane on Chat Holley Road with 300 feet of storage.
Bayoaks Estates Limited, Inc., acquired property at the southwest corner of the intersection in Nov. 2004 and started the development application process with the county for the construction of 47 luxury townhomes, as part of a subdivision known as Lighthouse Pointe. The report includes a county-approved plat for that subdivision dated February 2007.
With the four-laning of U.S. 331 south of the bay bridge being initiated and the accompanying elimination of the access curb cut to the South Walton Tourist Development Council office and visitor center, then-TDC Director Sonny Mares began to seek out a location on U.S. 331 near the bridge for a satellite visitor center. The U.S. 331/Chat Holley Road intersection was viewed as a possible location.
By January 2009, construction on the four-lane section of U.S. 331 had increased safety problems with the U.S. 331/Chat Holley intersection, with traffic on Chat Holley projected to increase.
In spring 2009, the southwest corner property, still undeveloped, was listed for sale, with a sign on the property displaying a rendering for 47 townhomes as approved by the county.
In May 2009, county officials and DOT representatives met on-site at the location to discuss the intersection and the possibility of a traffic light there. The meeting resulted in an agreement for Walton County to produce a study reflecting current traffic conditions and projected traffic increase at the location to make the case for the approval of a light by the state. Such a study was initiated the following month and completed in July 2009, with the conclusion that a traffic signal was warranted. Included in the study was the finding that, in order for an eastbound turn land to be constructed on Chat Holley Road, additional right-of-way would need to be acquired by the county.
In August, based on the study, county commissioners approved a resolution in favor of a traffic light at the intersection.
Also in August, DOT concurred that the light was needed but again insisted on major improvements to Chat Holley Road as condition.
In September, county commissioners approved a design study by Preble-Rish, engineering consulting company for the county, for improvements to Chat Holley Road. A problem with limited right-of-way on the east end of Chat Holley was identified at that time.
A county engineer subsequently met with a representative of then-owners of the southwestern corner property, Bayoaks Estates Limited, in an attempt to get the owners to either donate property for right-of-way in connection with the improvement project—or to provide some property in exchange for proportional fair share credits in connection with future development of the property. This is documented in the report by email records between the property owner, Preble-Rish and Walton County Public Works personnel.
By spring 2010, work on the four-lane section of U.S. 331 was completed and the TDC continued to explore options for a satellite visitor center. Negotiations to obtain property from Bayoaks Estates to expand the intersection for turn lanes had been unsuccessful. However, Bayoaks Estates was willing to sell 1.5 acres at the intersection to the county, suggesting that the county use the portion needed as right-of-way and use the remainder for a park.
In June, 2010, 331 Bayside Properties Ltd., a company formed by Lloyd Blue, owner of other property, including a business, at the intersection, entered into a contract with Bayoaks Estates to purchase the entire 1.5 acres at the southwestern corner of the intersection. The contract price was $877,000, with closing date set at Oct. 8, 2010, or before. This was for the stated purpose of tieing up the property so that feasibility studies could be conducted on potential use of the property by the county.
After being notified of the contract, Preble-Rish provided conceptual plans for intersection improvements, and Town Planning Group was enlisted to prepare conceptual plans for a TDC visitor center on the property….
Read the full story in the Nov. 24, 2011 edition of the Herald Breeze.