By DOTTY NIST
Walton County commissioners have determined that the Sandestin Development of Regional Impact (DRI) is not in substantial compliance with its development order – and that a Notice of Proposed Change procedure will be required by the developer for future development activity.
The decision took place at the end of an all-day quasi-judicial hearing held by the Walton County Board of County Commissioners (BCC) on June 6 at the South Walton Annex, with attendees filling the meeting room to overflowing.
All members of the county commission were present except for District 3 Commissioner Bill Imfeld, who has made it a practice to abstain from voting on Sandestin issues due to a business conflict.
In addition to Walton County and Sandestin Resort developer Sandestin Investments, parties represented at the hearing included the Sandestin Owners Association (SOA), Driftwood residents, Grand Boulevard/The Howard Group, and Bla-Lock Development.
Also in attendance was State Senator Greg Evers, although Evers did not make any statement and his presence was not publicly acknowledged. Evers sat in front alongside the BCC and spoke with commissioners and others present individually during the course of the meeting.
DRIs are Florida developments deemed to have a substantial effect on people residing in more than one county, either due to the character, size or location of the development. These developments are subject to regional and state review for approval, along with special review on a regional and state level of their development plans.
According to Florida Statutes, local governments issuing development orders for DRIs hold primary responsibility for monitoring DRIs and enforcing their development order provisions. In instances where a developer “fails to act in substantial compliance” with the DRI development order, state statutes direct that no permits, approvals, or extensions of service are to be approved by the local government.
Walton County approved the original development order for the Sandestin DRI in 1976. According to information provided at the hearing, that approval was for 8,768 residential units and other development on 1,960 acres.
Some properties included in the original DRI, among those Grand Boulevard and most of Driftwood, are now under separate ownership or control from Sandestin Investments and from that of the SOA. However, those properties are still considered part of the DRI and continue to undergo monitoring as such.
As part of an ordinance approved in 2002, the requirement for annual reports on the Sandestin DRI to be submitted was initiated. This requirement was not always complied with under past owners of the property.
Since acquiring Sandestin Resort from Intrawest in 2010, current owner Tom Becnel of Sandestin Investments has submitted annual reports on the DRI.
It was noted that “extensive review” of the 2013 Annual Report, along with prior documentation and reports submitted by the developer and later submittals, had been the basis for staff findings for the hearing.
Greg Stewart of Nabors, Giblin & Nickerson, land use attorney for the county, presented the findings.
“Staff has come to the opinion that Sandestin is not in compliance,” Stewart said, citing as reasons a decrease in open space required by the development order of more than 20 acres, an increase in commercial development beyond that authorized by the development order, and an increase in residential acreage of over 128 acres beyond what had been identified in a 1984 agreement between the Florida Department of Community Affairs (DCA) and the owner of Sandestin at the time. Stewart also maintained that there had been an increase in residential acreage, combined with a decrease in commercial acreage which, it was alleged, had been contrary to state statutes governing DRIs.
A staff report provided to the BCC also spoke of “numerous deficiencies and errors which exist in the documentation submitted for Sandestin over the years and require correction through the Notice of Proposed Change (NOPC) process…” Such a process is required by law when deviations from a DRI’s previously-approved plan rise to a certain level. It is a process that includes public hearings and state review.
The need for an NOPC to be done for the Sandestin DRI had been discussed often at BCC meetings over recent years as projects proposed within the DRI came before the commission. The BCC had directed staff to address this matter with Sandestin, and meetings between Sandestin and staff had been held on the issue.
While this was later hotly contested by Sandestin Investments representatives, Stewart and county staff maintained the position that the 1984 agreement with DCA had “set the benchmark” for residential, nonresidential, and open space acreage requirements for the DRI.
While noting that, in the 1984 agreement, DCA had agreed to allow certain major roadways/major collectors to be counted as open space, Stewart explained that, in the 2013 Annual Report, the developer had included as open space additional roads, including those that were not of the same character as those allowed for inclusion by DCA. He showed examples of internal streets serving homes within subdivision and minor cul-de-sacs that had been used by the developer as part of the open space calculation.
In recent submittals by the developer Stewart said, 148.92 acres of roads were counted as open space. This was about twice the acreage number that had been counted in 1985 following the agreement with DCA. Stewart said that of the 148.92 acres, staff was only able to support the inclusion of 86.88 acres of roads as open space.
Stewart also reported that additional open space had been claimed by the developer in 2014 in connection with developed residential parcels, with 65.1 acres of open space accounted for as golf course buffers. After visiting the development, staff made the finding that the latter were not buffers but setbacks.
Stewart also spoke of property labeled as a nature preserve being claimed as open space, even though four homes stood on it. Also counted as open space, he said, had been medians, common areas, a pool and a parking lot.
“Open space traditionally were larger contiguous tracts,” Stewart told the commissioners, adding that “if it was going to be treated as open space, it has to come to you for that to be decided.”
Staff’s conclusion on open space was that there had been a decrease of at least 71.58 acres in the DRI from the amount approved in the 1984 agreement (1,031.1 acres).
The report also calculated 108,274 square feet of commercial being claimed above what had been authorized, with 117,115 square feet of commercial remaining to be built on Howard Group property and 151.791 square feet remaining to be built at Sandestin.
Stewart explained that all of this was not to say that the DRI could not be brought into compliance, but that a Notice of Proposed Change procedure would be required.
Representing the Sandestin Owner Association, local attorney Gary Vorbeck spoke in support of the staff findings. He was critical of Sandestin Investments’ ownership of the property, complaining that Sandestin’s Baytowne Village had been turned into “a virtual carnival,” to the detriment of the resort’s ambiance and homeowners’ property values. He charged that the Sandestin developers had “sung and danced their way without being accountable for years.”
On behalf of the SOA, there was testimony by a planning expert, who provided her own analysis finding noncompliance with the development.
Tallahassee attorney Shawn Heath spoke for residents of the Driftwood property, most of which had been included in the original Sandestin DRI. Driftwood is now walled off from Sandestin Resort.
Heath maintained that much of Sandestin’s open space issues center on Driftwood. He described the arrowhead-shaped peninsular subdivision as “like a bowl” with wetlands in its interior. The 200-acre interior, he told the gathering, had historically been open space and had previously been set aside for golf course, greenbelt and lake use.
Heath presented evidence that the wetlands status of the interior of the peninsula had been disregarded by previous developers in the interest of profit, leading to an April 2003 development order being issued for the interior.
He blamed the development activity that began a few years later in the interior of the peninsula for the flooded streets, yards, mosquitoes, and decreasing property values experienced by Driftwood residents.
“We’ve been trying to get to this moment for 10 years,” Heath told the commissioners, speaking of the compliance hearing….
Read the full story in the June 12, 2014 edition of the Herald Breeze.