By BEN GRAFTON
The special Walton County Planning Commission meeting on April 29 was convened to consider a proposed ordinance titled “U.S. Highway 331 Corridor Design Standards.” Chairman Tom Terrell opened the meeting by inviting members of the moderately sized audience to present their comments about the ordinance to the commission.
Members of the audience were eager to address the commission and Richard Bennett was first to step to the podium. He said, “This ordinance looks like the second eminent domain taking for property along U.S. 331. Why is this going on? You will pass the ordinance before we [the public] know what’s in it….We’re really not notified properly either.”
Terrell pointed out that there have been six public meetings and newspaper announcements about the proposal. Bennett persisted saying, “You have to notify the folks involved. …I suggest you should wait until the road is finished [before enacting this ordinance]. Some people won’t have anything left. …The whole thing [access roads, types of businesses, building codes, etc.] should be decided by the [property] owners on the highway.”
Commissioner Suzanne Harris expressed concern about vehicle access to businesses along the corridor under provisions of the ordinance. Bennett replied, “…some people will have to go half of a mile out of their way and then a half mile back to get to the businesses.”
Commissioner David Kramer asked how much property would be taken and about the impact on job growth. Bennett said, “…the proposal will hurt – it will destroy some properties and job growth will be slowed.”
Bennett was followed by Albert Paris of Palmetto Properties who opened his remarks by expressing concern about the negative impact the proposal will have on business growth. He pointed out he had sent e-mails outlining his concerns to each of the Planning Board Commissioners and to the members of the Board of County Commissioners (BCC). At Terrell’s request Paris provided a copy of the e-mail for the record.
Paris said, “I only know of one meeting in Freeport where this proposal was discussed… I don’t think that [properties] from Freeport north are conducive to the proposed rules… It has taken 30 years to get U.S. 331 four-laned – and now during recovery [of business growth] I don’t think additional regulations should be imposed. It costs a lot to improve properties to get them ready to meet regulations. When buyers learn what is coming, they lose interest.”
In response to a question, Paris said he thought the proposal would slow job growth.
Terrell said, “I hope everyone understands that the Planning Commission did not write this [draft ordinance]. We are here to conduct the meeting. There have been ample opportunities for people to put in their opposition or support. The meeting tonight is to get info from the people on the record. We will vote on it and send our recommendation on to the Board of County Commissioners.”
Kerry LaCour followed Paris to the podium. His presentation was emotional and demonstrated how he felt about the proposal. Following Bennett’s lead, he said, “Why are we just finding out about this? Why don’t you notify the property owners directly? They might not see the notices and copies of the proposed ordinance are not easily available.”
Commissioners made the point that the planning staff follows required procedures and it does not have the resources to identify and notify every property owner along U.S.331.
LaCour said, “You need to hold off this decision. All property owners should be notified by mail.” This opinion was actively supported by the audience.
Commissioner Teddy Stewart said that he sympathized with LaCour and then made a motion to continue the meeting until a later date while an attempt to provide notices to more property owners and stake holders could be made.
After a recess, the commission set a continuation date of May 29 at 5 p.m. for this meeting.
Harris committed to provide 50 copies of the proposed ordinance for distribution to the public. The staff will also provide additional copies which will be available at the South Walton Annex and at the planning staff offices in DeFuniak Springs. In addition, the draft ordinance will be posted on the Walton County web page
The last member of the audience to speak at this meeting said he wanted to know who was responsible for the corridor idea. After a pause, Terrell replied, “It came from the BCC.”
By BEN GRAFTON