By DOTTY NIST
“Where do we want to be, and how do we want to get there?” was a question posed to attendees at the March 4 “Coffee with the Commissioner” event hosted by Sara Comander at Seascape.
The Walton County District 4 commissioner had previously spearheaded an effort that culminated in a visioning document known as “Walton County Down the Road” being approved by the Walton County Board of County Commissioners (BCC) in 2010. The document was the product of a series of workshops in which citizens were encouraged to look ahead to the future and share their priorities for the county.
Two years later, Comander held additional public meetings to update the community’s vision for the county. She has emphasized that this should be a continuing process.
“Has your vision for Walton County changed in the last two years?” she asked citizens at the March 4 event.
Attendees had more questions and concerns to share than visioning ideas. Art Miller had provided Comander with a list of those in advance. He clarified that he had not necessarily meant for all of the items to be responded to at the event. However, Comander tried to go ahead and address as many as possible.
She said she shared concerns that Miller had identified with regard to the Walton County Economic Development Alliance (EDA).
Comander noted that she had started the EDA and that it was her desire for it to be the lead economic development agency in the county.
The EDA was founded in 2008 with the joint participation of the BCC, DeFuniak Springs, Freeport, Paxton, and the Walton Area Chamber of Commerce.
Comander recalled that after she was taken off the EDA board, the board had decided to “take out the private sector” from the organization. While the move may have been a good one in a way, it cut down on sources of funding for the EDA, Comander observed.
Walton County provides the EDA with $137,500 per year in funding, and the municipalities furnish lesser amounts to the group.
Walton County Administrator Larry Jones, who was present at Seascape and who serves on the EDA board, commented that EDA Executive Director Steve Jaeger had prioritized a look at “how it would work” to get private investment back into the organization.
Miller urged for better direction from the BCC to the EDA in order to provide for the county’s economic development goals to be met.
Comander agreed on the advisability of the BCC communicating better with the EDA on “what is our vision.”
“We need people to have higher-paying jobs,” Comander emphasized.
She was confident that the county-owned Mossy Head Industrial Park would help accomplish that, with Love’s Travel Stops and Empire Truck Sales to locate at the park soon, offering employees pay above the minimum wage, and other potential tenants currently negotiating for space at the park.
Comander also spoke of her involvement with the DeFuniak Springs Business & Professional Association, on which she serves as president. “We are geared to small businesses…we’ve got to keep them them strong, we’ve got to keep them viable,” she commented.
Among other initiatives, she discussed working with Freeport to get the port “opened up” with dredging in order to accommodate larger vessels. Calling that port “key to Walton County,” Comander commented that after storms it has been the only way to get fuel in.
Turning to the state’s plans to get U.S. 331 four-laned in its entirety up to I-10, Comander said that the county has a draft of corridor standards for that roadway north of the bay. The proposed standards are much less stringent as the ones governing U.S. 331 south of the bay. “I want the 331 corridor to be an attractive place. I want it to be filled with businesses.” Comander told the gathering.
In response to a question, Comander said that more meetings between the BCC and Freeport are planned regarding the $2 million loan that the county provided the city years ago to provide for water and sewer along the Choctawhatchee Bay. This had been part of an effort to address the problem of sewage from septic tanks leaking into the bay.
Miller asked if the county had a master plan for the Mossy Head Industrial Park. Jones responded that the county had contracted with Baskerville-Donovan about seven years ago to get one prepared, but that it would have costs millions to implement.
Miller was critical of a previously-proposed contract with EBSCO, owner of land in the area of the CR-395/CR-30A intersection, in connection with the turn lane planned by the county there. He called the contact “very one-sided” in favor of the property owners. Comander responded that the contract had not been signed and that Mark Davis, county attorney, was redoing the whole contract.
Asked if a turn lane was necessary in order to signalize the intersection, Buddy Wright of Walton County Public Works responded that the turn lane was needed in order for the intersection to operate correctly with a traffic light. He added that Regional Utilities had indicated that it would be difficult to do the necessary moving of service lines in connection with the improvements without some “wiggle room” provided by the county acquiring some property from EBSCO in the intersection area.
Comander listed her top priorities for the county as keeping ad valorem taxes low, controlling spending, and protecting the beaches and bay.
“We are a jewel in Walton County. I want us to stay that way,” she emphasized.
She said that, with every decision, she considered “is it the right thing to do for the 57,000 people who live here and our economy.”
“I would like us to be one united county,” she told the gathering.
Observing that Walton County is a “prime place for people to retire,” Comander touched on her vision for DeFuniak Springs as a senior community.
As major accomplishments as commissioner, Comander listed the visioning process, starting the EDA, working with the BCC to bring more transparency to county government, the program to eradicate invasive Cogongrass, her effort to get the planned traffic signal at Geronimo Street and U.S. 98, and her work toward getting all of U.S. 331 four-laned, including the bay bridge.
Seascape resident Bob Sullivan said he would contact Comander later with questions and concerns. At the meeting, he did ask why the recently-adopted ordinance regulating roadside fund raising had prohibited “panhandling” on CR-30— but not on Scenic Gulf Drive.
Comander thought this had been because the BCC had heard from CR-30A residents that the practice had been a problem there. She pledged to look at extending the prohibition to Scenic Gulf Drive.
Miller discussed problems with the Walton County Land Development Code, calling the code “so antiquated.” Comander agreed that many portions of the code needed reworking. She noted that Walton County Planning and Development Services Director Wayne Dyess has been working to propose needed revisions.
Miramar Beach resident Charlotte Flynt urged for the southwestern end of Walton County to be kept in mind by the BCC. She pointed out that there are few parks in the area. “Or schools,” added Mike Flynt.
Additional “Coffee with the Commissioner” programs are planned at various
locations, the next one to take place at 5:30 p.m. on March 14 at the Choctaw Beach Community Center, and the subsequent one scheduled for 5:30 p.m. on March 20 at Rosemary Beach Town Hall. Comander plans to hold two more events in April, one at 5:30 p.m. on April 10 at the South Walton Annex and one at 5:30
p.m. on April 23 at the Coastal Branch Library.
By DOTTY NIST