By DOTTY NIST
Final approval was granted on Sept. 22 for the Bishop Landing Conceptual Planned Unit Development (PUD), an 187-unit residential project proposed for 103.8 acres on the eastern side Bishop Tolbert Road and also extending along part of Church Street in Santa Rosa Beach, with part of the property bordering Churchill Bayou.
This was the decision of the Walton County Board of County Commissioners (BCC) at its regular land use meeting on that date at the South Walton Annex, with detailed plans for the development to come before the BCC at a later date.
The BCC held a 2 1/2-hour hearing on the PUD proposal, along with a brief hearing on an accompanying overlay ordinance incorporating the conceptual plan into the Walton County Land Development Code (LDC).
Proposed by BT Florida, L.L.C., the PUD called for 84 single-family homes, 103 townhomes, and a community park and pavilion.
The property encompasses several future land use areas (Residential, Mixed Use, and Conservation Residential) and zoning districts (Neighborhood Infill, Small Neighborhood, and Conservation Residential two units per one acre).
Engineer Jamie Eubanks presented information on the project on behalf of the applicants. He noted that the overall density for the project was 1.8 units per acre. He explained that the only reason the project was being proposed as a PUD was due to the blending of zoning districts into one development. Eubanks emphasized that, contrary to the case for many PUDs, no variances, deviations, or buy-outs were being requested. (There was one variance request at the close of the hearing at the suggestion of the BCC).
District 4 Commissioner Trey Nick asked about the number of entrances. Eubanks said that three were planned, one, the main entrance, off Church Street, and two off Bishop Tolbert Road. Nick said he was concerned about the entrances off the latter road due to it not being “a good road.”
Eubanks agreed, saying that the applicants planned to pave Bishop Tolbert Road as part of the project at their expense. He explained that the paving would be provided along the three quarters of a mile of the road that is currently unpaved and graveled. Eubanks said the road section would be paved to county standards and that this should prevent sediment washing into the mosquito control ditch on the property and then into the bay, in contrast with what is happening now with the gravel road.
In response to a question, Eubanks said no gates were planned at the entrances.
District 1 Commissioner Boots McCormick brought up the issue of whether the part of Bishop Tolbert Road north of the power line was a public road or not. He said he had heard arguments that it was not and had not seen any documentation verifying that the road was public.
Eubanks said he understood that concern and that the applicants had asked the county for a determination on the matter. He said attorney Steve Hall (acting Walton County land use attorney) had issued a document determining that the road was public. Hall later confirmed this opinion.
McCormick said he did not want to “step off into a quagmire” with the road situation.
Hall told the commissioners that the county’s last/current list of publicly-maintained roads accepted for 2022 includes a portion of Bishop Tolbert Road. He observed that the BCC had “shown great reluctance” to abandon any public rights-of-way and that accordingly his position was to defend the right-of-way against challenge.
Hall referenced case law indicating that once a county accepts a portion of a roadway on a dedicated plat, “the county has accepted the entire grid.”
While acknowledging that the question of whether the portion in question of Bishop Tolbert Road had been accepted by the county remained “open,” Hall said he had not seen any document either abandoning it (or specifically establishing the road section as public right-of-way.)
Adam Brock, developer for the project, acknowledged that there had been debate on the issue. He maintained that regardless of whether the road is public or private, the applicants have access to the road and the right to use it to enter the development property without any restriction that would limit the number of units that can be accessed from the road
Brock said he owns half of the road and that the applicants would be willing to use it only for emergency ingress and egress if this would be the preference of the county, although he indicated that he would prefer the road to be open at all times to increase connectivity.
He said he did not believe the road issue should hold up the project. The issue, he said, would only determine whether the two Bishop Tolbert Road entrances would be “permanently used” or just used for emergency access.
Brock acknowledged that if it were determined that the road was private rather than public, he would only be able to improve the half of the road that he owns that extends approximately to the center line.
After some additional discussion on the public/private road issue, sidewalks, roadway connections, and public improvements to be provided by the applicants, attorney Hall reminded the officials that what was before them was a conceptual PUD, although one containing much more detail than most conceptual PUDs. He noted that the detailed plan for the PUD would come later and what they were considering now was the overall proposal and entitlement for number of units.
There was discussion on the small wedding chapel that would serve as the mixed use component required under the Small Neighborhood zoning category. Eubanks told the officials that the chapel would not have power, light, or amplifications and would be for the purpose of small ceremonies during daytime hours only.
District 5 Commissioner Tony Anderson expressed concern that wedding ceremonies could end up having 100 or so people attending and could cause disturbance to neighboring residents. Eubanks said to avoid this operating hours had been established for the chapel plus other requirements applying to sound and parking. He added that it would be a half-mile “hike” to get to the venue and that it would be located half a mile from the nearest neighbor.
There was a motion by McCormick to approve the PUD, which was seconded by Anderson, who indicated that he still had concerns that could be addressed when the detailed plans for the PUD came forward.
Over an hour’s worth of public comment was received, with Terrell Arline, an attorney representing Bishop Tolbert Road residents and property owners Teri Tolbert and husband Joe Strouse speaking, first.
Arline first objected to the hearing being conducted as a legislative proceeding rather than a quasi-judicial one, arguing that since it involved application of the LDC to a specific piece of property, the decision would be considered a quasi-judicial one.
Arline also presented a subdivision map, plat, and developer’s right-of-way dedication for the area that he maintained had not made public any land along Bishop Tolbert Road—along with deeds showing lots that the original developer did not plat and that he told the officials had been sold and were now owned by Tolbert and Strouse. He summarized that the road section had never been publicly dedicated or accepted by the county.
Arline also argued that any claim to the road established on the basis of the county maintaining the road would apply to 20 feet of road width and only as far north as the power line, not wide enough for a public road and not allowing for a cross-access connector from Church Street.
In addition to remarks by Tolbert and Strouse, speaking in opposition to the development were ten other members of the public. Among objections and concerns raised were that the development would be inconsistent with surrounding neighborhoods, loss of appeal of the area, challenges with evacuation, overdevelopment of the area, potential negative impacts on the bayou waterway, potential increase of flooding in the area, and potential waterfront light and “noise pollution” from the development.
Area attorney Trey Goodwin spoke on behalf of several Churchill Drive households located directly across the bayou from the proposed development. He did not ask for denial but voiced concerns related to the bayou, the largest of those related to noise and light associated with the development.
Brock pointed out in response that there would be a 50-foot buffer from the bayou for the houses that would remain undisturbed and said that he was not asking to do anything that was not already being done by existing property owners on the bayou.
As public discussion concluded, District 2 Commissioner Danny Glidewell asked staff what would be the maximum density for the property. The response was 370 units, with 187 units proposed for the development.
With some additional BCC discussion, McCormick’s previous motion for approval of the conceptual PUD as presented was amended to provide for a variance to eliminate the commercial requirement associated with the wedding chapel and doing away with that part of the proposal. This was agreed to by the developer.
The motion for approval carried unanimously.
Also approved unanimously shortly later was the accompanying overlay ordinance.
The meeting included an adoption hearing for the Christian International LSA, which had been approved by the BCC for transmittal to the state on July 26. The BCC voted to approve adoption of the LSA as well.
Other approvals included two replat requests, the Coastal Grove Phase II Replat and the Club Drive Lot 3326 Replat.