By DOTTY NIST
“Why do we need to invade our forests?” was local resident Chick Huettel’s question to county commissioners at a public hearing on a proposal to build a new South Walton Tourist Development Council (TDC) facility on Point Washington State Forest property.
The hearing took place on April 10 as part of the Walton County Board of County Commissioners (BCC) regular meeting at the South Walton Courthouse Annex. Well over 100 citizens were in attendance, overflowing into the building entrance.
The proposed facility has been billed the South Walton Discovery Center. The TDC envisions it as not only the new home for the TDC offices and visitor center but as providing a nature center/nature education component that would enhance visitors’ awareness of the area’s unique natural resources and habitats.
Opinion on the proposal was overwhelming negative. The controversy was reminiscent of one that arose in the mid-1990s in response to plans by the state to transfer part of approximately 18,000 acres, purchased in 1992 in south Walton County through the Preservation 2000 land acquisition program, back to the county for governmental, educational, civic and housing uses. Strong opposition by citizens plus a lawsuit resulted in the amount of conservation land eventually sold to the county being limited to 114 acres. This property is the South Walton Governmental and Educational Center, home to the South Walton Courthouse Annex, the Coastal Branch Library, and South Walton High School. Most of the other property that had been purchased by the state in 1992 is contained in the 15,399-acre Point Washington State Forest and the 1,640-acre Topsail Hill Preserve State Park.
While the TDC proposal would not technically remove land from the Point Washington State Forest, the 11.9 acres that would house the Discovery Center would be leased to the county through a 50-year lease, and much of the eight-acre portion of that parcel that would to be developed would be put to use for buildings and parking lots.
TDC Executive Director Dawn Moliterno described a long process by the TDC, beginning a decade ago or earlier, to evaluate its current facility with respect to needs and goals of the organization and to evaluate possible sites for relocation. The TDC’s current location is at the northeast corner of the U.S. 331/U.S 98 intersection on a 1.1-acre parcel leased from the Florida Forest Service. Moliterno emphasized the difficulty of accessing the current building that began when the portion of U.S. 331 adjacent to the facility was four-laned and the access curb cut to the building was eliminated.
Moliterno recalled that in November 2010 the TDC had brought a strategic plan to BCC that had included an evaluation of potential sites for relocation. She said at that time property on Chat Holley Road was being evaluated as a potential site for a separate visitor/welcome center, a plan the TDC later decided would not be feasible. “The Chat Holley site was deemed insufficient,” she said.
Moliterno related that the TDC’s 2011-12 strategic plan, approved by tourism council members, had included a recommendation to relocate to the Point Washington State Forest site. The proposed site is directly south of the U.S. 331/U.S. 98 intersection. That strategic plan was approved by the BCC, she noted, as was a June 2011 resolution that she had presented to the BCC authorizing negotiations with the Florida Forest Service to locate the South Walton Discovery Center at the proposed site.
In March 2012, the TDC had approved working terms for an agreement with the Florida Forest Service regarding the new TDC facility. Later the same day, Moliterno brought the working terms before the BCC for consideration, along with a request for a motion in favor of proceeding with the RFP process for the facility. Approval of the working terms would move the approval process forward to the state level, beginning with the state Acquistion and Restoration Council and culminating with the governor and cabinet.
The BCC opted to put off a decision. At the request of citizens attending that meeting, they instead voted to schedule a public hearing on the items, setting the stage for the April 10 hearing.
Cliff Knauer of Preble Rish commented on work done by the engineering company in connection with the TDC facility. A building assessment completed 1 1/2 years ago revealed “tons of problems” with the existing building, he said. A space-needs study and conceptual drawings setting out space needs for the TDC were also provided, Knauer said.
He said an eight-acre developed area is envisioned for the new facility. Wetland delineations have been done, Knauer said, along with an endangered/threatened species study that concluded that the facility was not likely to impact any of these species.
Knauer said Florida Forest Service requests in connection with the proposed facility had included public access, boardwalks, exhibits for education and understanding of the forest, and parking spaces for trails that would be connected to the existing Long Leaf Trail in the forest.
He suggested as mitigation for the development the possibility of Walton County “giving back” to the forest service right-of-ways owned by the county, totaling almost 80 acres, that are located within the state forest.
Knauer said his company had been requested to look at alternate sites for the new building, including two sites declared surplus by the state and one potential site that had been part of the 114 acres acquired from the state by the county.The two surplus sites were “very wet,” he said, and the other, while upland, was only 1.5 to 1.6 acre, “way too small for the needs of the TDC now.”
Knauer said of the Point Washington State Forest site, “This particular location is the best in Walton County in terms of traffic.”
Prior to public comment, District 3 Commissioner Sara Comander suggested putting the proposal “on the shelf at least until after the tourist season.” She noted that it would be possible to temporarily relocate TDC offices if needed “until we come to a unified decision on what is best.”
Community leader Bonnie McQuiston asserted that “we will not lose one tourist” if the TDC plan were not to proceed. The facility would, she charged, fracture the largest part of the Point Washington State Forest and “set a precedent” that would threaten the rest of the forest.
Both McQuiston and Chick Huettel, president of the Coastal Preservation Society, questioned why, just a few months ago, the TDC had voted to end its role with the creation of the Kellogg Nature Center on 10 bayfront acres that had been donated by a local resident. The decision had been made that the organization could no longer expend bed tax dollars on the nature center, and the TDC had turned responsibility for the property over to the county commission. Huettel suggested that the TDC reverse the decision and proceed with previous plans for a nature center on the Kellogg property.
Jacquee Markel complained about the scarcity of opportunities for public input on the new TDC building proposal. “We can do better in this county,” she urged.
Donald Anthony Mall was one of a few voices in favor of the Discovery Center proposal. “It’s like everybody is on crazy pills…It’s the perfect spot,” he said of the proposed location.
“You can put it on private property,” Celeste Cobena countered.
Cobena recalled how she and others had had fought to preserve state lands in south Walton County in the 1990s when there was a plan to take thousands of aces out of conservation. “A group of citizens—I was one of them—said, no, you’re not!” she said. The citizens’ answer was the same, Cobena recalled, when the state put forth a plan to construct several 100-car parking lots within Topsail Hill Preserve State Park.
Bill Schultz was one of the individuals who in 1998 had joined a lawsuit to block the state from transferring 420 acres of the property purchased through the Preservation 2000 program to Walton County. In 1999 the lawsuit was settled with only the 114 acres that is now the South Walton Governmental and Educational Center being sold to the county.
“Do this and you have opened the floodgates,” Schultz warned the commissioners regarding the Discovery Center proposal.
“You can always build another building, but you cannot preserve a forest once it has been shot down,” Schultz observed….
Read the full story in the April 19, 2012 edition of the Herald Breeze.