By LEAH STRATMANN
Every seven years, the state mandates local planning agencies to look over the land development codes and ordinances at work in communities and fine-tune them according to the growth and development needs of each community. For the most part these meetings draw interest only from those who feel as if they might be directly affected by any changes to land use designations or the adoption of ordinances that may limit what they may do with property they own. In reality, changes to the code affect every landowner in the county, yet public participation is very low.
The planning department has held more than 20 meetings throughout the county in an effort to keep the public aware of what they are engaged in and to seek public opinion about changes to the land code. The planning department held meetings in virtually every unincorporated community in the county as well as others that are more heavily populated. The majority of the workshops have taken place in the courthouse annex on the south end of U.S. 331. As the land use designation discussions ground down to literally parsing every word, attendance dwindled accordingly.
However, four people have been vigilant in attending every meeting. Anita Page, executive director of the South Walton Community Council, is paid to keep an eye on such things. David Kramer, a local Realtor/broker, has a vested interest in shaping the future of the county and keeping track of changes that may affect his clients or his property. Mary Nielson, a self-described “piddler in real estate,” has some interests she wants to protect, while Bill Bard, a retired airline pilot, is looking out for the lifestyle he has created for himself and wants to protect.
The Herald asked all four the same questions in an effort to get four perspectives to the current work being done on behalf of future Walton County residents.
When asked how they thought the process was going and if the planners were on the right track, Kramer said the changes were adding consistency, so he hoped so. He added, “It seems the county is attempting to make revisions to foster consistency throughout the comp plan. However, without reading all the elements it is difficult to give an educated assessment. Historically provisions in elements were contradictory with and seemingly hidden deep in elements other than the ‘Future Land Use Element.’ There is always the matter of subjectivity or interpretation left up to the planning director. This has been the major point of discord and likely will remain. Laws have ever been ‘interpreted,’ that’s why we have a judiciary.”
Nielson said, “I believe the EAR amendment process is going as well as one could anticipate due to its complexity. The process has become more citizen [and] property owner-friendly primarily due to the planning commission leadership as demonstrated by chairman Tom Terrell, and his fellow board members. We have been allowed time to debate, digest, and receive feedback from the planning department staff with revisions to the draft document. Having staff post the proposed documents online is a major improvement and ensuring the revisions are posted promptly will enhance the process.
“I believe the planners are re-evaluating some land use categories and the components of those categories as a result of ongoing discussions, meetings and conferences between staff and affected landowners. This process has untold impact on individual land owners for years to come and demands a thoughtful, unrushed process to obtain the best consensus document available before it is forwarded to the Board of County Commissioners (BCC). Throughout the process it is imperative for the planning commission, the county planning department staff and the citizens offering comments and suggestions to respect and protect private property rights,” Nielson concluded.
Bard weighed in with these comments, basically taking issue with the process. “Initially I thought the EAR would be a word-smithing exercise to clarify intents and policies so that the current land use classification elements could be more effectively used to reflect the vision presented by the original South Walton Trust. Why we don’t have a North Walton Trust, presenting a vision for the area of the comprehensive plan that refers to that section of the county, is a mystery to me. My concern has always been the encroachment of commercial activity into residential areas. As this occurs there needs to be a greater emphasis on what commercial activities can and cannot be permitted. Definitions must accompany these land uses and be clearly written so as not to leave any room for loopholes. Otherwise situations will arise that lead to increased code enforcement actions, putting an added burden on the county’s resources.
“I’m seeing widespread changes being presented, but no overall plan to support these changes. No, I do not think we are on the right track, because our train has been derailed by land use changes that were based on increasing the density of a parcel, not on how these changes reflect the overall plan. The current intended use of a parcel is never considered during the process of changing it. The focus of the process always seems to revolve around its current density, and how much of an increase to allow. Now that we can take a breather and see where we stand, nothing seems to fit any more. The future land use element (FLUE) has become a patchwork quilt of land uses. It paints a picture that would make one wonder if there was any thought put into it at all, other than to create a strip mall along Hwy 98 from Okaloosa to Bay County. We need to take a step back and work on a plan, rather than add to the confusion.”
Page thought the process was going very well. “The reason I say that is because the county is taking the time to really go through it. I think that is exactly the right approach and gives everyone a chance to really review it and discuss it. Even though not a lot of people are there, the people who are there have gone through the materials and are making very good suggestions and asking questions. It has been such a deliberative process…because of all of that, I think we are going to end up with a much better plan.”
While noting the county was still wrangling with the mixed-use categories and they were likely to generate a lot of debate, Page praised commissioner Tom Terrell for saying from the outset the planning commission would take its time and not rush any document along the path. “I think the planning department is doing a very good job,” Page stated.
When asked how the changes being hammered out now would affect a developer or homeowner in 2018, Bard said, “The short answer is no change. The developer will be able to continue to increase the density of the parcels they develop, and the homeowner will be buying homes in neighborhoods where there are rows and rows of houses crammed together, as you see throughout Europe and other parts of the world where space is an issue. This might be the vision of the homeowner in the year 2018. It might be desirable to live in this sort of urbanized Walton County. Just being able to live in Walton County might be the fulfillment of an individual’s dream, no matter what the area looks like. Without a plan in place, the future is a big unknown,” he said.
“I wish I had a magic ball and could predict the future. I do believe the current economic downturn following an abnormal real estate sizzle in Walton County has afforded many to see that sometimes quantity should not override quality of life issues for the community as a whole,” Nielson said. “By placing emphasis on rushing developers through the process so they could extract extraordinary profits (based upon quantity) during the peak years, we now can see some of the fallout, i.e. quality of life issues such as drainage, parking, destroyed preservation, overbuilding of mini motels under the disguise of single-family residences for short term rentals, to name a few. Hopefully by having experienced such dramatic peaks and valleys, the current EAR process planners will take all these issues into consideration when quantifying land uses,” she opined.
Kramer was more pragmatic saying, “Any agent ‘worth his salt’ needs to be well versed in the laws that affect his or her clients’ investments. These proposed changes will drastically affect how real estate professionals market potential and risk associated with real property and its future development. The short answer is the average real estate professional will not be affected because they are average. Good professionals are already reading and digesting these proposed changes to our laws.”
Finally, each participant was asked what they would do if county planners gave them a magic wand and told they could change forever any one aspect of the county code, what they would change and why.
Nielson felt that people who are employed full time are somewhat shut out of the process of participation in the EAR process because of time constraints associated with running those businesses and for young people with families. “Therefore, my magic wand would require that any property owner whose property’s land use would change in any manner from its existing use, or density etc., would have to be personally notified of this process and would be provided a method to participate in some way other than having to devote endless hours in public forums and meetings. Official meeting notices and advertisements in the official newspaper of Walton County and on the county’s website, still does not reach primarily the working owners nor the out of state owners. They are still disenfranchised and their private property rights could very well be significantly compromised.”
Kramer said, “My magic wand would give Walton County zoning. We’d only have a very few land uses and each would have subtle categories that most people know as zoning. This would bring Walton County out of a contested struggle with the state department of community affairs (DCA) every time we want to rearrange the furniture in our house (so to speak). If the Hometown Democracy initiative ever gets on the ballot and was voted into our constitution, Walton County will suffer an economic stagnation greater than that we all experience in today’s financial crisis.”
Bard said, “I would take the land use change process out of the political arena that tends to be clouded by special interests, and place it in the hands of a master or board who would make land use changes based on the overall plan and vision of the community. It would have to be a very powerful magic wand.”
Perhaps Kramer summed up the feelings of most of those who attend these workshops with his final comment.
“I see the future of Walton County as any guy approaching 60 might… no new industry now and no new industries being fostered via the proposed FLUE. You can’t just wish for new jobs — government has the means and needs to use those means to foster an environment that will bring new and clean industries to our county. Government employment and tourism are our main employers and that’s fine, but no new industries mean our kids leave to seek bright futures elsewhere. Maybe we will envision a future where clean jobs and bright minds seek out a new living in Walton County — but that future will not come to pass without our fostering ‘that’ vision in our future land use and other plan elements. The future is ours for the making, but some would have us wear blinders and put up gates while longing for the ‘good ol’ days’. I urge all thinkers, dreamers and pragmatists to join in this process. We, your county, and our future need you. Please, come listen and speak your mind — this is your government. You will be heard and you can make a difference.”