By DOTTY NIST
County commissioners have agreed not to proceed for the time being with design standards proposed for U.S. 331 north of the bay.
This decision was taken during the July 22 Walton County Board of County Commissioners(BCC) meeting at the Walton County Courthouse, following comments by District 2 Commissioner Kenneth Pridgen.
Walton County had started public workshops on the proposed standards almost a year ago, and it had been anticipated that they would go before the Walton County Planning Commission for review soon, followed by a final determination by the Walton County Board of County Commissioners. The standards had been motivated by the large influx of commercial development expected as a result of the ongoing four-laning of U.S. 331 north of the bay.
Pridgen spoke about meetings and conversations that he had had with owners of business along the U.S. 331 corridor. He said that prior to those meetings and conversations, he had not understood the severity of what the businesses were facing in connection with the corridor expansion project.
For businesses having part of their property taken in connection with the highway project, he said, the state “is a little slow paying them for the compensation for what they’re taking.”
“Some of them are going to be demolished completely; they’ve got inventory that’s got to be moved, and they’re having real tough time…getting reestablished,” he said of some of the businesses. Other businesses along the corridor may not be facing losing any property to the highway, Pridgen explained, but they may still be struggling due to the impacts of the road construction.
“So I’d like to see us… reach out to help these businesses try to get back up and running,” he said. In connection with that, Pridgen suggested “backing up” with regard to establishing the proposed U.S. 331 Corridor Design Standards.
Earlier in the meeting the commissioners had heard from Florida Department of Transportation (DOT) District 3 Secretary Tommy Barfield that DOT would use service roads wherever possible along the corridor as multi-laning proceeded and that, due to medians being constructed, in many cases it would not be possible to turn right or left as before from properties along the corridor when accessing U.S. 331. However, Barfield provided assurance that all properties along the corridor would still be able to access U.S. 331.
Pridgen urged for the impacts of factors such as service roads and medians to be taken into account by the BCC prior to making any decision on corridor standards.
“So I think we need to sort of step back and take our breath and let these businesses get up and running and let the corridor get somewhat close to being complete,” Pridgen said. He was of the opinion that no new business would be likely to locate on the corridor while construction was ongoing. He said he thought the BCC could take a more realistic look at standards once road construction was near completion.
County Commission Chairman Bill Chapman indicated agreement, suggesting that the standards could “go on the back burner” for the present. He said it was also important to make sure that corridor property owners’ concerns with the corridor standards were resolved, as there had been misunderstandings about the standards by the public.
District 4 Commissioner Sara Comander agreed to the delay but said businesses owners had not understood that existing businesses would be vested and not subject to the standards. These are minimum standards aimed at maintaining and enhancing the value of properties and existing businesses as new businesses move in, she explained.
District 5 Commission Cindy Meadows suggested tasking a county staff person to work with corridor property owners. She also suggested having staff look at the Walton County Land Development Code to look for provisions in existence there that would aid in accomplishment of the goals of the corridor standards.
District 3 Commissioner Bill Imfeld agreed about having a staff member work with the businesses to see that the county’s needs and the businesses’ needs are both met.
Walton County Administrator Larry Jones reminded the commissioners that DOT had funded a specialist to be brought onto county staff to coordinate with the state on transportation issues.
Jones pledged to provide the BCC with an update in January regarding the U.S. 331 corridor and the possibility of proceeding with corridor standards.
By DOTTY NIST