By DOTTY NIST
An April 20 public hearing has been scheduled in connection with a proposal to build a new South Walton Tourist Development Council (TDC) facility directly south of the U.S. 331/U.S. 98 intersection.
This would be on an 11.9-acre site that is part of the Point Washington State Forest.
The decision to hold the public hearing took place at the March 13 Walton County Board of County Commissioners (BCC) meeting at the South Walton Courthouse Annex. It followed TDC Executive Director Dawn Moliterno’s request for approval of working terms that would be incorporated into a memorandum of agreement with the Florida Forest Service regarding the 11.9-acre site.
The TDC’s office and visitor center are currently located at the northeast corner of the U.S. 331/U.S. 98 intersection on 1.1 acres of forest property that is leased to the county, on a 50-year lease at a rate of $1 per year. The existing lease for the property calls for it to be restored to predevelopment condition at such time as it is no longer under its current use.
A number of years ago the tourism council began to actively explore a new location for the organization’s visitor center or for both its office and visitor center. This was prompted by the four-laning of the section of U.S. 331 south of the bay bridge, which was completed in spring 2010. The road construction eliminated the curb cut that previously provided access to the TDC building for motorists traveling south on U.S. 331.
At the March 13 BCC meeting, Moliterno went into the history of the plans for the new facility on the state forest site, which had begun with an April 2011 decision by the tourism council to recommend that she and TDC staff negotiate with the forest service to obtain the 11.9-acre site. In June 2011, the proposed relocation of the visitor center and office to the site was included in the TDC’s strategic plan, which was approved by the BCC on June 14, Moliterno noted. On June 28, the BCC approved a resolution of support for the TDC’s negotiations with the state to obtain the site. Then, on March 13, 2012, the morning of the BCC meeting, the tourism council had voted to recommend approval of the working terms for an agreement with the forest service.
Moliterno maintained that these decisions had met all requirements, including those pertaining to public notification.
As envisioned, the new facility would include a nature and education center with boardwalks through the Point Washington State Forest connecting with the existing Long Leaf Trail. The trail runs east and west through the middle of the state forest. The facility would be known as the “South Walton Discovery Center.”
Under the proposed working terms, rather than the site of the existing TDC building undergoing restoration, the existing TDC building site would be transferred to the forest service and the existing building donated for use as administrative offices for the agency.
Moliterno said the draft agreement composed on the basis of the working terms would be presented to the state Acquistion and Restoration Council (ARC), which would hold two public hearings on the proposal. Those hearings would take place at the state level.
An additional request by Moliterno on behalf of the TDC was for the BCC to authorize bids to be sought for architectural/design services on the South Walton Discovery Center, which would allow public hearings to take place locally to gather input on the design of the facility and features the public would like to see incorporated with it.
Moliterno addressed questions that had been raised by the public about the proposed facility. One question had been whether TDC bed tax funds could legally be used to build the facility. Others had maintained that a 1999 settlement agreement in connection with the county’s acquisition of the Government and Education Center property had in effect barred the 11.9-acre property from being used for this purpose.
Clay Adkinson, TDC attorney, said he had reviewed the issues and that in his opinion they would not stop the proposal from moving forward.
Moliterno said she had also sought an opinion from the Florida Attorney General’s Office on the funding question. She said she anticipated it taking several months to obtain an answer.
District 4 Commissioner Sara Comander asked if the TDC had previously signed a lease for the 11.9-acre property and sent it to the Florida Forest Service.
Moliterno responded that the forest service had sent examples of leases that the agency had used in the past and had asked the TDC staff which one would work best. She said the TDC staff had selected one example and sent it back to the forest service.
Moliterno explained that all the BCC was being asked to decide that afternoon was that the working terms were agreeable to them for purposes of proceeding with the state process for the proposal.
Several citizens commented on the proposal.
Anita Page maintained that land should be removed from conservation only as a last resort. “This is a resource that belongs to the people of Florida,” she said. Page added that indication of other sites being pursued by the TDC was lacking. She urged that the commissioners refrain from acting on the working terms and the permission for bids, at least until “fundamental issues” had been addressed, including obtaining the opinion from the attorney general. She suggested that land in the South Walton Governmental and Educational Center be considered.
“This is the beginning…of a public process,” County Commission Chairman Scott Brannon asserted….
Read the full story in the March 22, 2012 edition of the Herald Breeze.