By REID TUCKER
The fate of Jim and Melanie Nipper’s north Walton County skydiving business is still very much up in the air, as the Zoning Board of Adjustments (ZBA) determined they waived their right to appeal.
However, the appeal the board denied on Thursday, Feb. 28, wasn’t of the written determination provided in December by Planning Director Wayne Dyess. Instead, the board decided the Nippers’ right to appeal was time-barred all the way back to 2008, when they withdrew their development order application after a phone conversation with then-Planning Director Pat Blackshear.
The board based its decision on the minutes of the Technical Review Committee meeting held June 4, 2008. The minutes show that former Planning Director Pat Blackshear was noted as having spoken with the Nippers over the phone prior to the meeting, explaining to them that the Planning Department could not approve the project detailed in a minor development order for a “public skydiving school.” Further, the minutes show that the Nippers subsequently withdrew their project application, which the board, excluding member Tony Vallee, who cast the lone dissenting vote, interpreted as their tacit acknowledgement of Blackshear’s determination.
In the opinion of Bill Warner, the attorney representing county staff, the Nippers forfeited their right to appeal within 30 days after the 2008 conversation with Blackshear, regardless of whether or not Blackshear ever submitted a written determination. The Nippers’ attorney, Kent Safriet, argued that there was no need for an appeal in 2008 since the right can only be exercised after an application is denied in writing, otherwise there is no way of knowing the particulars of why an application was denied in the first place. Safriet said the board’s decision allowed the county government to avoid actually discussing the merits of his clients’ case and coming to a real decision.
There were two immediate consequences of the 4-1 vote delivered by the board members. First, the board did not discuss the root of the matter at hand, that being whether or not a skydiving operation is out of compliance with the county’s land development code as it pertains to areas zoned for large scale agriculture. Second, dozens of citizens, most of whom drove to Santa Rosa Beach from the far northern end of the county specifically to go on-record for or against the Nippers’ business, were unable to present their positions at the meeting.
Safriet said his clients still have the option to pursue an appeal in circuit court within 30 days to overturn the board’s determination. In that case, he said, it will be up to a judge to decide if the Nippers can make their case before the board again or if they will have to submit another development order application. Safriet called the board’s determination a “delay of the inevitable,” saying the county will eventually have to confront the “real issue” of allowable land use.
“Whether it is done at this board or at circuit court, it’s going to be decided somewhere legally,” Safriet said. “We’re going to get to the same point one way or another. This is just a procedural hurdle being thrown up here to delay things. Somebody at the county is going to have to deal with this legal issue eventually.”
Wayland Jerome Wilkerson, whose 438 acres adjoins theirs, agreed with Safriet that the county was passing the buck. Wilkerson, who on Jan. 13, 2011, filed the first of the complaints that eventually got SkydiveLive! shut down, said Walton County had “drug its feet” by passing off a decision on Nippers’ appeal. If the Nippers had gotten a chance to speak at the meeting, he said that means he’d have gotten to speak as well, and he came prepared to make his case.
Wilkerson brought with him a packet containing photographs taken on Jan. 23, 2011, showing skydivers from SkydiveLive! landing on his property, one parachutist just 100 feet or so from his front door, which he said amounts to trespassing. He said the Nippers’ stated intention to open a private-use airstrip, which he understood at the time as meaning one strictly for their own personal use, conflicted with the reality of a commercial skydiving business. Noise from the airplanes flying overhead is another main concern for Wilkerson, who said the engine drone of circling aircraft frightens away the game he enjoys hunting on his family land, the central 180 acres of which was homesteaded by his grandparents in the late 1800s.
“I have every right to complain,” Wilkerson said. “I’m just a taxpaying citizen and I would like to have my peace and quiet back. My grandparents didn’t move out here. This should have been taken care of way back by the county. I’m fed up with it. It’s time for something to happen. It’s past time.”
The relationship between Wilkerson and the Nippers started out on good terms, he said, but his opinion changed as they began using their airstrip more and more for commercial purposes, which include skydiving and military contracts. He feels the Nippers deliberately misrepresented themselves to him and other neighbors and wrote in his letter the board that they tried to “circumvent the local government, property owners, regulations and zoning requirements while continuing to operate and establish a commercial operation.” Nowadays, he would not support the Nippers’ airstrip even if they permanently ceased all aircraft-related commercial operations on their land and he hopes the county will see it that way too.
“If you give [the Nippers] an inch they’ll take a mile,” Wilkerson said. “They portrayed themselves to be one way but turned out to be something else entirely. It’s all about the money.”
As for the Nippers themselves, they didn’t expect the board’s decision to disallow an appeal, but they weren’t shocked either. Jim Nipper said he and his wife will be in touch with their attorney about taking their case to the circuit court or, if that fails to gain traction, to submit a new development order request altogether. He feels like he is in the right, regardless of what the board or some of the neighbors have to say.
“This is the same kind of thing from the county that we’ve dealt with for four years,” Nipper said. “What it all comes down to is this is an allowed use for the property. It doesn’t matter what [some people] think about it. ‘Private’ doesn’t mean that we can’t generate income off our property.”
The Nippers invited their friends and neighbors over for a barbecue and free skydiving on their property that weekend.