By DOTTY NIST
Whether plans for a Sandestin Owners Association (SOA) office building will proceed is still in doubt.
The controversial proposal was considered by the Walton County Board of County Commissioners (BCC) in a quasi-judicial hearing on Aug. 28 at the South Walton Annex. The hearing was continued after several hours of testimony and discussion.
The 8,906-square-foot building is proposed for a 2.61-acre site at 181 Reeves Road, north of Footprints Gift Shop on U.S. 98 in Miramar Beach. The purpose of the building, according to the applicants, is to house the 18-member staff employed for the SOA, which serves more than 4,000 homes at Sandestin, along with more than a million square feet of commercial.
The site was acquired by the SOA in November 2012. It was purchased from Doyce James and Lydia Reeves, who formerly resided there. The plans provide for the building site to be connected by a bridge to the vested area of Sandestin, but the property is not part of the Sandestin development of regional impact (DRI).
The applicants have agreed to maintain an electronic gate with limited access for SOA employees and emergency personnel only.
At the outset of the Aug. 28 meeting, Renee Bradley, Walton County planner, presented emails received from Sandestin Resort owner Tom Becnel. The first email indicated the support of Becnel, who had deeded the SOA property to connect the building site with the vested portion of Sandestin via the bridge across a lake.
Bradley reported that on Aug. 12, Becnel’s attorney had requested that that property be deeded back to him. She read an Aug. 21 email from Becnel stating that the SOA had presented their project to him as an additional “Sandestin owners’ gate,” a third access point to Sandestin to alleviate congestion. The email indicated that Becnel was no longer in support of the project since learning that the SOA had no plans for a Sandestin owners’ gate.
Doyle and Janes Reeves, proprietors of Footprints Gift Shop and owners of homes to the south and east of the site, are in opposition to the project, as well. The Reeves are the parents of one of the parties who sold the project site to the SOA.
Gary Vorbeck, an attorney representing the SOA, argued that it would not be good public policy for the BCC to involve itself with matters related to the deed or easement associated with the property.
Mark Davis, Walton County attorney, also advised the BCC that he would recommend that they limit their consideration of the project to whether or not it complies with the Walton County Land Development Code and Comprehensive Plan. However, in order to ensure the due process rights of project opponents, Davis did not bar testimony related to the deed or easement.
Dean Burgis, engineer for the project, explained that the applicants’ intent had been to utilize the existing curb cut on U.S. 98 but that the western 10-12 feet of their easement does not line up with the curb cut. He said plans were for the curb cut to therefore be extended to line with with the easement, which would be widened to 20 feet.
Much of the opposition to the proposal involved this proposed access from U.S. 98 across the Reeves’ property and the impact that traffic between U.S. 98 and the office building would have in connection with highway congestion.
Jill Crew, an attorney representing the Reeves, argued that previous county policy had been to require the consent of a property owner when a driveway under that person’s ownership was proposed to be improved for the access of another property owner. She pointed out that the Reeves had not given such permission.
Crew added that the driveway in question had always been used for residential traffic—and that, in fact, the Reeves had been told in court that it could not be used for commercial traffic.
James Sullivan, an engineer testifying for the Reeves, warned that traffic safety would be a concern with the project and that the planned 20-foot-wide easement would not be adequate for the traffic generated by the project.
Expert planner Pat Blackshear concurred, stressing that the safety of the traveling public “should be the county’s greatest concern.” She also charged that the applicants had not addressed how their traffic would interface with traffic to and from Footprints Gift Shop.
Doyle Reeves, who stated that he had lived on the property adjoining the site for the past 51 years, testified that he and his wife Janet are owners of the property where the SOA plans to construct their access off U.S. 98 for the office building. He and other family members, he stated, use the meandering driveway off U.S. 98 to access their homes. He warned that traffic associated with the project would jeopardize lives.
Reeves charged that the SOA’s plans would overburden the access and make the intersection with U.S. 98 even more dangerous.
“It is going to harm my business tremendously,” testified Janet Reeves, speaking of Footprints Gift Shop.
“They are trying to run over us,” she complained.
“We cannot move traffic quick enough,” commented Edgewater Condominium President Suzanne Harris. “You all really need to think before we do this,” she urged.
“We are concerned for our neighborhood,” said Bobby Bowick, president of the Gulf Pines homeowners’ association. “It’s a zoo,” he said of traffic on U.S. 98 along the section in question.
Grand Dunes resident Don Riley reported a close call and extreme traffic congestion in the area of the access off U.S. 98.
In response to a suggestion from District 5 Commissioner Cindy Meadows, Vorbeck suggested that the hearing be continued in order for the applicants to attempt to “try to work something out” with the Reeves.
After some additional discussion, Meadows moved to continue the hearing to 1 p.m. on Sept. 11 at the South Walton Annex. The motion was approved with aye votes from the four commissioners in attendance. On behalf of the Reeves, Crew went on record in objection to the continuance.