By LEAH STRATMANN
For the past several years, residents of Choctaw Beach have been trooping to meetings of the planning commission to protest height limitations on development in their unincorporated community. Last week, the planning department held a workshop in Choctaw Beach to hear public comment.
“Basically we are here to take public comments, take good notes and take it back to the planning department,” said Greg Graham, engineering manager of the planning department. “A draft of the height limitation ordinance will go to the planning commission for public comment. Public workshops are to get input on the front end, so that there is not as much negative comment. That’s why we are here,” he said.
The EAR based amendment height limit proposal calls for a 40-foot limit on single-family dwellings, 50-feet on multi-family dwellings, 75-feet on commercial buildings, and 100-feet on industrial buildings.
Choctaw Beach resident Ed Bradley said, “This is the third year this has been going on. Mr. [Scott] Brannon ran on pushing the height limit north of the bay. Basically Florida has an act called the Bert Harris Act, saying if somebody changes the present or future use of your property, they have to compensate you for it. There is going to be a height limit imposed, but nobody knows why they want it. Right now it says for the health, safety and general welfare of the county. It may not happen around here. You look at Choctaw Beach where you have the highway and the bay. There is no way to put up a tall structure like a tall condo here.
“They don’t know why they want it? Brannon says it is a fire issue, but that is not true. Fire trucks can provide the necessary water pressure. In our case, the buildings all have to be on the other side of the highway. This is an issue about money. It is about this strip of sand around the bay. This plateau north of the bay is worth a lot of money. In today’s dollars, more than a billion dollars can be made.
“When push comes to shove, your house will be devalued. If some city block has been bought up, one house at a time, there will soon be a big development. The economy should keep big buildings from popping up here. I’m just trying to protect what is mine already,” he concluded.
The issue of who asked for a north of the bay height limit was a recurring theme. Graham emphasized the planning department was asked by the Walton County Board of County Commissioners (BCC) to draft the proposal. There is currently a height limitation amendment in place, slated to be automatically repealed on May 27, 2009. The amendment reads, “Notwithstanding any other provisions of the Code, no man-made improvements higher than four (4) stories of habitable space of fifty feet (50) in height, whichever is less, shall be permitted in the unincorporated areas of Walton County. Legitimate agricultural and industrial uses shall be exempt from this limitation.”
Resident Waylon Davis said, “We can’t understand why anyone of any age who has heirs wouldn’t want to leave them the best possible. Once the bypass comes through here, every square inch of the property here is going to be very very valuable. These were homestead lots originally. If government puts more and more restrictions on it, the land will not be as valuable. If you talk to a real estate guy, Choctaw Beach isn’t mentioned to speculators from the south. Why does the area need a height limit? They are not going to build condos in Freeport, Paxton and DeFuniak Springs; they are going to look at the big beautiful bay. Why would anybody want local government of five individuals limit what you can and can’t do with your property? Why is it so urgent in 2008? They are taking away your freedom to do what you want with your property,” Davis said.
Dave Bouley said, “I’ve lived here since 1977. I do not support the government telling me what to do, but your arguments have strong points for both sides. If we put a limit on it, people will not want to come in and take our property. I can vision Choctaw Beach as the quaint, unique community it is. There are more people here than I wish to see here. I don’t want somebody to come in and buy the block in front of me. My property borders the reservation. If we have the height restriction, the quaint community will remain and my property will not rise in value as quickly.”
Devon O’Donnell said, “My property is not part of the waterfront. I bought it as an investment. It’s not a very nice-looking area. If we have a height restriction, the property loses its investment potential. My property backs up to Eglin. Right now I have a right to build what I want there. Why take away our rights?”
Bouley stated, “I don’t understand this. I don’t know what you are looking at. There is not the infrastructure to support a three-story house in Choctaw Beach. There is no water or sewer. I think the height restriction should be even lower unless the infrastructure is there. If fire trucks can’t put the water into the trucks, they can’t put out the fires. You have to build from the ground up.”
Another resident, Lewis Alioto said, “Height restriction is unnecessary and represents more government intrusion.”
These comments and others will be taken back to the planning department as they continue to make amendments to the Land Development Code, a process mandated by the state every seven years.