By ALICIA LEONARD
The DeFuniak Springs Planning Board met in a quasi judicial public hearing the evening of Dec. 2 over a request from Ohio Investments, LLC with standing room only at the DeFuniak Springs City Hall.
Crowds spilled out into the hallway as the board heard a request to change land use from Low Density Residential to Medium Density Residential and to downgrade the zoning of the property, located on SR-83, near the Walton County Public Health Department, from a C-2 Commercial General District to a R-2 Multiple Family Residential District.
The property, located at 414 State Highway 83 North, is a large residential home of over 4,000 square feet that the CEO of COPE Center, Inc., Rachel Gillis, and representative for Ohio Investments told the board she hoped would be the new home of the assisted living facility Magnolia Terrace, now located a few miles south of the city on U.S. 331. Gillis told the board that due to the widening of U.S. 331, a new home for the senior residents had to be found and she had hoped it would be possible to relocate the business inside the city limits. Gillis said that the Department of Transportation had extended their notice to move to October 2014, but that still did not leave a great deal of time to find a property, renovate or build onto the property and move the facility.
One small business owner and a resident who lives next to the property spoke against the move, but the great majority of those who stepped up to the microphone to make their opinions heard were in favor of the project. Many who spoke for the relocation have or has had family members at the facility.
Gillis said 20 residents and 13 employees would be out of a place to live and work if they could not find a location to move the facility to. “We want to continue to put money back into the local economy. When we do things like this, we hire locally, from materials to contractors, we aim to put that money back into local businesses. My goal since we decided we would have to move the facility has been to get it inside the city limits,” she told the board.
One of the issues with many property locations is that the zoning, placed in 1983, does not match the 2010 Comprehensive Land Use plan. During questioning, staff from the city told Gillis’ attorney that over 1,400 acres in the city had compatibility issues between their zoning and land use categories. Representatives from JP Engineering told the board that it was not unusual and many small towns deal with the same issue, in their experience.
Board members asked questions concerning traffic studies, discussed possibilities that if they approved the request it could be used for a different purpose if the company decided to sell the property after receiving approval, and the impact on other close businesses and residents.
The board was bound by five factors under Chap.15.02 of the zoning charter when considering the request: character of the district and substantial changes and developments, conservation of property values, land use including traffic, recreation, schools, drainage and housing, industrial site needs and facts and opinions received at public hearings.
In closing, Gillis’ attorney expressed that the request was actually a downgrade from the C-2 Commercial General District to a R-2 Multiple Family Residential zoning which would allow an institutional/residential facility to fit into the neighborhood that contains recreational facilities, the Boys&Girls Club, the Walton County Health Department, several small businesses and some residential properties.
After more discussion, board member Bruce Naylor moved to recommend approval of the request to the DeFuniak Springs City Council and board member Terry Dawkins seconded the motion. The board moved unanimously to recommend approval to the city council.
The next hurdle will be in the City Council, where they can approve the recommendation, deny or approve the request with conditions. The company will still have to come back to the board and city for expansion and building plan approval if their rezoning and land use requests are approved by the Council at a future meeting.
By ALICIA LEONARD