by BEN GRAFTON
Commissioner Sara Comander opened the Town Hall meeting of April 8 before a small audience of 25 – 30 people in the meeting room of Walton County’s Coastal Branch Library with comments about the Walton County Strategic Plan. Copies of excerpts of the plan’s vision and objectives were available to the attendees and the plan goals are posted on the county’s website. Comander said that the plan “needs to go deeper, but she doesn’t know how long it will take to get there.”
Comander reported that she had been in Tallahassee last week to attend meetings with other representatives of a 23-county consortium who are members of the group affected by the Restore Act. Of this group, eight northwest Florida counties were actually touched by oil from the BP oil spill. She said that all 23 counties must act together. A memo of understanding with the governor provides that only the 23 counties can vote on Restore Act problems. She said, “It’s like setting up a corporation with no money, but fines from Trans Ocean, which leased the rig to BP, should be coming in soon.”
It is very clear where the money can be spent according to Comander – only on infrastructure, environmental (wetlands) and storm water control. If Restore Act money is spent on some other project, the rules require that the expenditure be reimbursed to the fund.
Comander agrees with Sen. Gaetz’ recommendation that some of the money be set aside to be used for projects in the future.
It was reported that there have been some discussions with Bay County to try to use Restore Act funds to establish a “center for excellence” in Walton County. A Gulf Research Facility is visualized. Bay has a deepwater port that would be available and Walton can offer a good quality of life for center employees, but. so far, Bay does not seem interested in this possibility.
The meeting turned to discussion of plans for modifications to the intersection of CR-395 and CR-30A to improve traffic flow and reduce delays (particularly at “checkout time”) at this intersection. County Public Works Division engineer Greg Graham showed the audience projected pictures of two alternatives under consideration: install traffic lights or install a roundabout. At the present, either option would provide turn lanes to help route traffic going north on CR-395 and either would move the southernmost lane several feet to the north of its present location to accommodate parking for homeowners south and east of the intersection. Some in the audience did not like this accommodation. In any event, either alternative will impact parking near the intersection.
Comander voiced the opinion that she does not like roundabouts and this theme was picked up by members of the audience. Some said that the roundabout would not work because at peak traffic flow times one lane of traffic could dominate the intersection, effectively closing it to traffic in other lanes. The general consensus seemed to be that the traffic light option was the best choice.
The audience was also critical of the plan to route the bicycle path along the north side of CR-30A because that option put bicyclists in greater exposure to traffic and this interfered with traffic flow and presented a heightened safety problem for the bicyclists.
Questions about the status of the county administrator arose. Comander said that the matter would be discussed at the BCC meeting on April 9. The choices seem to be: restart the search from the beginning; or go out and hire a “head hunter” to find a replacement; or keep Gerry Demers in the job and go out and hire a new assistant county administrator.
Comander said that to her knowledge, former County Administrator Bob Halfhill was not asked to resign from the county administrator’s position. She believed Halfhill’s family may have been disappointed about living in Walton County and this may have been part of the reason for the resignation.
Bob Hudson, chair of the South Walton County Mosquito Control district expressed the desire to see the county hire a professional administrator with the track record and the ability to take over management and get problems under control. He cited turnover in the Public Works Division, the current need to find a new leader for TDC and he said that county employees are saying, “…we need stability in Walton County.”
A representative from the Frangista Beach Home Owners Association reported that large houses around that development were in effect hotels and event houses. He said, “They are a plague because of the crowds and the parking problems.” He asked for better control to deal with the event house problem, but not control to the degree that it would be detrimental to regular rentals. Comander said that Commissioner Cindy Meadows planned to bring up the subject of occupational licenses and that this could be a route to control undesirable renting and advertising practices. The occupational licenses are in place in DeFuniak Springs and in Freeport and they are also highly desired by the South Walton Fire District. Code violations would result in loss of license which would help control the situation.
It was reported that Seaside has put up three lights on the beach in violation of the lighting ordinance. Code enforcement is not enforcing the ordinance at this spot and so the lights are on at night. The justification for putting up the lights is understood to be to control undesirable conduct on the beaches, but these lights certainly are detrimental to the turtle nesting program.
Comander expressed her feelings that the “rumor mill” has been crossing over the line and that it should be brought under control.