Azzurro Condominium, Yellow House Amendment, Five Other Proposals Get Planning Commission Nod

MAC CARPENTER, Walton County planning and development services director, speaks to planning commissioners at the July 13 meeting. (Photo by Dotty Nist)

By DOTTY NIST

Four development proposals and three proposed amendments have cleared the Walton County Planning Commission with favorable votes.

The county board held its regular monthly meeting on July 13 at the South Walton Annex.

Azzurro Condominium

Generating a great deal of testimony and public comment was the Azzurro Condominium development proposal, consisting of a four-story, 12-unit condominium on an undeveloped 3.11-acre beachfront site on the west side of Beachside Drive, south of San Roy Road in the Eastern Lake area.

A previous proposal for the property had been Angelo’s, a condominium with upwards of 20 units that the Walton County Board of County Commissioners (BCC) had declined to approve in July 2007, due to staff indicating that the plans did not meet a code requirement calling for 95 percent preservation of the native dune plant community on a portion of the site. A couple of months later, the BCC had approved a downsized version, consisting of 13 multifamily units, with county preservation requirements deemed to have been met and all construction planned for the landward side of the coastal construction control line. However, the condominium was never constructed.

There have been efforts by the county to purchase the undeveloped site with its native dune area and rare plant community, for public use, going back to 2008 or earlier, when the county sought a Florida Communities Trust grant for this purpose. More recently, within the past few years there has been consideration of acquiring the property for the public with Walton County Tourist Development Council (TDC) funds. However, after several appraisals were obtained, there was a recent decision against the purchase.

Representing project applicant Cliff Harbour at the July 13 planning commission meeting were Dean Burgis of Emerald Coast Associates and Dana Matthews, attorney.

Matthews told the planning commissioners that all dunes on the property were to be preserved and that an easement existing on the site would not be interfered with. He said the building height was “right at 45 feet,” that a pool and decking that were part of the previous plans had been removed (placed at the top of the building) to allow for additional preservation of the site, and that the building had been pushed north 15 feet.

Matthews explained that 37 bedrooms were planned for the condominium and that 37 parking spaces were to be provided. He said the expectation was that this would be a second-home development.

Matthews referenced other condominiums in the vicinity of the subject property, which he explained are more dense that the Azzurro proposal. He also spoke of over 30 homes located within a quarter mile of the site that he said the applicant’s representatives had confirmed to be short-term rental homes. “This is a dense area,” Matthews said, observing that the short-term rental homes sleep a lot of people.

Planning Commissioner Danny Glidewell asked about the easement referenced. Burgis explained that this is a county easement on the eastern 33 feet of the property.

Eastern Lake/Gulf Drive resident Nina Horn told the planning commissioners that the dune on the subject property is over 20 feet tall and that she had been beach mice and sea turtle nests on the beachfront portion of the property. She added that for about 345 community residents, “this is our vista.”

Residents, Horn continued, view this parcel as part of the Eastern Lake neighborhood rather than part of the area of existing condominiums that Matthews had spoken of. She maintained that, as such, the proposed condominium would not be compatible with the neighborhood of single-family homes. “I am very much against this,” Horn concluded.

Will Dunaway, representing San Roy Road property owners, also argued that the proposed condominium would be incompatible with other parcels in the vicinity, explaining that the majority of the parcels south of CR-30A in the community are single-family lots.

Professional planner Allara Mills Gutcher, an expert witness for the opposing property owners, reinforced Dunaway’s argument, testifying, “The proposed development is not consistent with the uses in the area.”

Matthews countered by asking if this were true with 26 people sleeping in single-family short-term rental homes in the neighborhood.

Dunaway raised other questions about the development, including whether the proposed amount of impact on the site is allowable, arguing that only 0.432 acre of impact would be allowable, while the project plans show 0.45 acres.

Jeremy Reiser, an environmental specialist testifying for the applicant, told the board members that the project fits with the permit still in existence that was obtained for the previous proposal for the property.

Buddy Page, a planner and expert witness for the applicant, commented that he thought it was “fair to say” that this was not just a neighborhood of single-family homes that were not being rented out—but that instead the homes were “producing a considerable amount of income per month,” for the owners.

“That’s not single family,” Glidewell responded to the testimony.

Planning Commissioner Tom Babcock observed that a good job had been done with the proposal to reduce impact on the dune.

Planning Commission Chairman Teddy Stewart commented that this was a hard decision because, although the neighborhood is single-family residences, a “condo by a different name” has taken over the homes through them being used as the short-term rentals sleeping large groups of people. He said that although residents would probably rather see single-family use on the subject property to provide a better view of the beach, the condominium proposal that factors in plans for parking and other impacts is actually more beneficial to the neighborhood.

“In a perfect world, that would be a park,” Glidewell said of the property.

“I agree, I wish the county had bought it,” Stewart responded.

A motion for approval of the condominium proposal carried with all aye votes.

Yellow House 30A, L.L.C., Small Scale Amendment

Also encountering both support and opposition was a proposed small-scale amendment on behalf of Yellow House 30-A, L.L.C., and Christine Taylor to change the land use classification from Residential Preservation to Neighborhood Commercial on the 0.25-acre property where the Blue Mountain Beach Creamery ice cream shop operates. The subject property is on the southeast corner of the CR-30A and CR-83 in Blue Mountain Beach.

The business operation is considered a non-conforming use, and the BCC had agreed to sponsor the amendment as part of a settlement in a lawsuit filed by Yellow House against the county. The stated purpose of the amendment was to allow for the business to be rebuilt and go back into operation in the event that it were destroyed by a hurricane or other catastrophe.

While a local college student working at the business during breaks put in a word of support for the amendment, other residents spoke in opposition.

Johndra Culp, a 12-year resident of Blue Mountain Beach and co-author of the Blue Mountain Beach Neighborhood Plan, told the planning commissioners that the business owners have failed to operate under the terms of the neighborhood plan, with violations including placing a handicapped ramp in their lot setback, installing benches, and expanding windows in the building. She also urged for any changes in land use such as proposed by the amendment to “follow the same process” as had been required to create the neighborhood plan.

Mac Carpenter, county planning and development services director, countered that the property had been “protected in the (neighborhood) plan for commercial use.” He maintained that approval of the land use classification change would give the county a greater ability to regulate the business.

Babcock referenced a traffic problem in the area of the business and asked how the board could help residents and homeowners with that issue.

Carpenter indicated that, with the land use classification change, the property owners could apply for a development order and would be able to “address the success of their business,” possibly by acquiring additional space for parking across the street from the business. Without the land use change, there would be no opportunity to manage current impacts, he told the planning commissioners.

Blue Mountain Beach resident Kurt Tape came forward to address the board members in opposition, saying that he had no problem with the creamery—but pointing out that this property had started out many years ago as a residential lot, with a occupational home use approved later by the county having grown into the current business use. He described the property owners’ attitude as one of “don’t ask for permission, ask for forgiveness.” Tape told the board members that the proposed land use change had previously been turned down by the county.

“It’s a nonconforming use, and it should stay a nonconforming use,” he urged.

Representing the applicants, attorney David Theriaque told the board members that no code enforcement violations had been found in connection with the property despite the owners being cited for putting up awnings, putting out a bench, and other actions. He referenced letters of support from the community and argued that it had never been an intention of the neighborhood plan to restrict the use of the property to residential.

Theriaque told the planning commissioners that the owners had bought the property with the belief that it would be commercial. The proposed change, he explained, is to ensure that in the event of a fire, hurricane, etc., the owners do not lose their life savings.

Glidewell motioned for approval of the proposed change, and his motion was approved with all aye votes.

Ocean Estates Small Scale Amendment

The Ocean Estates Small Scale Amendment received a favorable vote, as well, despite opposition.

Requested by Joe Bruner, the amendment called for a land use classification change from Residential Preservation to Low Density Residential on 8.29 undeveloped acres on the east side of Thompson Road, three-quarters mile south of U.S. 98 in Santa Rosa Beach.

According to property history provided as part of the staff report, the property is an out parcel of the Country Club subdivision established in May 1990.

The staff report referenced a September 2016 compatibility report by McNeil Carroll Engineering which was provided and had concluded: “Land uses adjunct to this parcel are Neighborhood Infill and Residential Preservation. The requested change from Residential Preservation to Low Density Residential is consistent and will contain less density than most of the developed parcels within the neighborhood.”

“Residential Preservation is not appropriate for such a large piece of property,” Melissa Ward, a planner representing the applicant, maintained. She told the planning commissioners that a density of four units per acre would be appropriate for the property with water and sewer currently available—and that four units per acre was “all we’re asking for now.”

Representing homeowners in neighboring Country Club Villas, attorney David Pleat said the homeowners understand that the property will be developed and would not object to it being developed in “consistency” with the neighborhood, which he indicated would be as 14 half-acre lots rather as than 35 lots. He suggested that the board members grant approval conditioned on restricting development to the half-acre lots.

Gary Shipman, an attorney representing the applicant, pointed out that no development order or plan approval was being sought at the time, just the proposed land use change to Low Density Residential, “the lowest classification that fits.”

Carpenter commented that staff were in agreement that the current classification of Residential Preservation, which would limit the property to three single-family homes, was not the appropriate classification.

Glidewell moved for approval of the land use change conditioned on the restriction to half-acre lots. However, his motion was not seconded, and Carpenter maintained that the condition would not be appropriate for the current request.

Babcock then moved for approval of the request as presented. The motion was seconded.

Glidewell warned that approval without the half-acre lot condition would be “opening the barn door” to development that would be incompatible with neighboring residents’ property.

With the vote taken, Babcock’s motion was approved with all ayes, save one dissenting vote by Glidewell.

Other approvals, continued items

Other requests approved at the July 13 meeting included the following: Beachwood Estates, a subdivision of 22 residential lots on 3.37 acres at the west end of Rachel Road, west of Sugar Drive and south of U.S. 98 in Santa Rosa Beach; Gulf Atlantic Electric Warehouse, a 14,200-square-foot warehouse to be constructed on Lot 10 of the South Walton Commerce Park north of U.S. 98 in southeastern Walton County; Lot 16 South Walton Commerce Park, a 7,900-square-foot warehouse/vodka distillery to be constructed within the same business park; and the Old Florida Village Phase II Planned Unit Development (PUD) Amendment, consisting of a reduction in commercial intensity and increase in residential density of the second phase of the PUD, providing for construction of 45 multifamily units on 3.40 acres on the north side of CR-30A and east of Brentwood Lane in Santa Rosa Beach.

Items continued items to the Aug. 10 planning commission meeting included Piper’s Place, the Sand Dollar Court Subdivision, Indian Woman Subdivision, and Santa Rosa Beach Cow.

Planning commission decisions on land use and amendment requests are presented as recommendations to the BCC, which bears responsibility for final determinations on these items in public session.

Special meeting scheduled

In other action, the board members approved holding a special planning commission meeting for review of Future Land Use Element and Intergovernmental Coordination Element work-in-progress drafts by county planning staff. The meeting is scheduled for 5 p.m. on Aug. 21 at the Walton County Courthouse in DeFuniak Springs