By DOTTY NIST
After almost a year of research and consideration, the Walton County Board of County Commissioners (BCC) has voted unanimously to start the process of acquiring land for a sports complex and additional sports facilities for local youth south of the bay.
The vote took place at the May 13 BCC meeting at the South Walton Annex. The meeting was well attended by young sports enthusiasts and their parents.
For some time, Walton County District 5 Commissioner Cindy Meadows had highlighted overcrowding at Helen McCall Park, currently south Walton County’s only public sports facility for youth teams, and the need for additional sports fields.
In June 2013, M.C. Davis’ offer to sell the county a sizeable piece of property for a sports complex prompted a serious look at the issue.
Davis is best known as founder and owner of the 48,000-plus-acre Nokuse Plantation conservation area east of Freeport and the E.O. Wilson Biophilia Center, an environmental education facility.
Several public workshops had been held to gauge recreational needs in the community, particularly south of the bay, to take input on the public’s desires in connection with sports and recreation, to look at different options for locations, and to evaluate costs and financing possibilities.
Davis’ parcel, 34.63 acres in size, is located 2.2 miles east of Emerald Coast Middle School on the north side of U.S. 98.
A public invitation had been extended for other parties interested in offering property for sale to the county for recreational purposes to do so. At a September workshop, three other parties made presentations on property they would offer for this purpose. Included was a 20-acre property on Thompson Road abutting Helen McCall Park, 30 acres in the Santa Rosa Beach Town Center area on J.D. Miller Road, and a 26-acre site off Scenic Gulf Drive owned by South Walton Utility and in use as a percolation field.
As requested by the BCC, on May 13 Walton County Administrator Larry Jones brought forward an analysis of the four properties under consideration, their advantages and disadvantages, and a recommendation on property to be acquired and funding.
Jones observed that public input at the workshops had indicated that the greatest need was for more fields for football, soccer, baseball and softball. His recommendation was not to pursue purchase of the J.D. Miller Road or Thompson Road properties due to access concerns and the difficulty of avoiding wetlands dividing those properties. This left the 26-acre South Walton Utility property and the 34.63-acre Davis parcel.
It was noted that the latter two properties would have the advantage of requiring little clearing, in contrast with the other two, although it would be necessary for the county to pay costs of approximately $750,000 to bury the percolation equipment on the South Walton Utility parcel, which would also continue to serve as a percolation field.
Jones’ recommendation was to start the process to acquire the 34.63-acre parcel and lease the 26-acre parcel from the utility company. Due to access limitations on the latter parcel, he envisioned that its use, at least initially, would be for team practice rather than organized events and that it would be maintained as an unlighted “open space.” Two to three restrooms could be added, Jones noted.
He identified the capability of the Davis parcel for development of larger-scale sports facilities, including two football fields, four soccer fields, four baseball/softball fields, three restrooms, concessions, storage, and “plenty of parking.”
Part of Jones’ recommendation was for $250,000 to $300,000 worth of improvements, as well, to Helen McCall Park, among those tennis courts, a road and parking lot, a storage building, restrooms, renovations to the football press box, and lighted multipurpose and tee ball fields on the west side of the park.
As a funding source in connection with the two properties and the improvements at McCall Park, Jones identified the county’s existing credit line with SunTrust Bank, which would be extended by $10 million. The extension, he explained, would not increase the county’s $2.5 million annual payment on the credit line but would extend the time for paying off the credit line by six years.
He requested “broad approval,” if the BCC was so inclined, to move forward with the process of purchasing the Davis property, leasing the South Walton Utility property, and preparing for the improvements to Helen McCall Park. This was approved unanimously on a motion by District 4 Commissioner Sara Comander.
In connection with the potential property purchase, it was necessary for the BCC to follow county ordinance requirements for purchase transactions. To meet those requirements, three motions were approved. The first of these was to find the property acquisition in the best interest of Walton County and as providing for a public purpose as defined in the ordinance, with staff to obtain two appraisals, determine needed environmental assessments, determine other associated costs and identify the selling party. Jones noted that some of these directives had already been accomplished.
Motions were also passed to direct staff to clearly identify the funding source for the purchase, provide details and costs, and direct staff to develop a Request for Proposals (RFP) or an Invitation to Bid, “based on the most prudent course as determined by staff to procure design, development and construction costs.”
Comander observed that the $10 million extension on the bank line of credit would probably just barely cover the purchase cost of the property—but that it would be possible to pay down the credit line and fund more of the initiative in the future. “It’s a step in the right direction,” she said.
By DOTTY NIST