By DOTTY NIST
Final approval has been granted, setting the stage for Alaqua Animal Refuge to relocate and expand with new features and programs.
The approval came at the May 9 Walton County Board of County Commissioners (BCC) regular meeting at the South Walton Annex.
“This is one we really like,” Mac Carpenter, Walton County planning and development services director, said of the project.
Bob Baronti, Walton County senior planner, introduced the relocation project as a 106,211-square-foot project on 97.3 acres classified as Estate Residential and Rural Village.
Currently the nonprofit, no-kill refuge is located on 10 acres on Whitfield Road in Freeport. The new location is about five miles east of U.S. 331 on the north side of Highway 20.
“We think we have an awesome project before you today that will bring a lot of value to Walton County,” Cliff Knauer of Dewberry/Preble Rish, representing applicant Laurie Hood, told the commissioners.
Knauer explained that Hood had started the animal refuge “essentially in her front yard” (still the current location). The refuge “grew and grew” and flooding became a problem at the location, he said, explaining that for years Hood had sought land to relocate the refuge.
A large part of the relocation property had been donated by M.C. Davis prior to his death in 2015, and Hood had also acquired additional adjoining land, bringing the total acreage to over 97 acres.
“This project has been designed by my company and some fantastic architects that have all donated their time to make it happen,” Knauer said.
Knauer described plans for a welcome center, dog adoption buildings with a homelike atmosphere, a “medical supershed” with individual offices, space for staff, volunteers and research, a refreshment trailer, a horse arena, a medical clinic with surgery rooms, a chapel for pet funeral services, and cabins for interns.
He noted that the plans meet all requirements of the Walton County Comprehensive Plan and Land Development Code and all parking requirements. Paved parking spaces number 144 paved, with 16 grass spaces, the latter by permission of the planning director, Knauer detailed.
“It’s really going to be a first-class facility,” he concluded.
District 5 Commissioner Tony Anderson, formerly employed with the U.S. Postal Service, commented that he had been Hood’s mailman when she started the refuge. “To see what she’s done…is absolutely amazing,” he said.
County Commission Chair Cecilia Jones said she wished M.C. Davis could be present for the occasion.
Addressing the commissioners, Hood thanked them for their time and expressed her excitement at standing before them with this project after two years of planning. She recalled starting the refuge 10 years ago to address the situation that at that time there was no county animal shelter. She said she had had no idea at that time about everything that would come to pass with the refuge.
To date over 15,000 animals have been adopted in connection with the refuge, most coming from Walton County, Hood said. She described working closely with the Walton County Sheriff’s Office (WCSO), which is responsible for the Walton County Animal Control and the Walton County Animal Shelter. That cooperation has resulted in many more animal cruelty cases being prosecuted, Hood noted.
She related plans to continue with the equine therapy program for handicapped adults started at the current refuge location and expand it to children who are victims of abuse. She said Alaqua had been proud to partner with the WCSO with the Unconditional Love program, in which Walton Correctional Institute inmates train dogs to become companions. This program, which has changed many lives for the better, will continue with the move to the new location, Hood indicated.
She recalled a “Noah’s Ark Adventure” when Alaqua had been required to evacuate 250 animals due to flooding. She was glad to report that there would be no repeat of that situation at the new location.
Hood pledged a focus on education and future partnerships and reported that plans were already in place for Auburn University and the University of Florida to send their veterinary interns to the facility.
“Our future home is going to be one the county will be proud of,” she concluded.
A motion by District 1 Commissioner Bill Chapman for approval of the proposal carried unanimously, with applause accompanying the vote.
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