By DOTTY NIST
The county commissioners have agreed to the expenditure of bed tax funds for a museum of underwater sculptures, the first in the U.S.A., but affordable housing proved to be a more elusive concept to move forward with, at least for now.
These were among the agenda items for the April 24 Walton County Board of County Commissioners (BCC) meeting at the Walton County Courthouse.
Underwater Museum of Art
Jay Tusa, Walton County Tourist Development Council (TDC) executive director, brought forward the funding request for the Underwater Museum of Art, a partnership of the Cultural Arts Alliance of Walton County (CAA) and the South Walton Artificial Reef Association (SWARA), with Jennifer Steele present to speak on behalf of the arts alliance.
Supporting partners for the museum include the National Endowment for the Arts, Visit Florida, and the Alys Foundation.
Tusa explained that the requested expenditure, $25,000, had been approved at the TDC’s last meeting to be recommended to the BCC. The museum location is to be an artificial reef offshore from Grayton Beach State Park.
“We are requesting funding from the tourist development council for the purpose of the new Underwater Museum of Art,” Steele told the commissioners. “It is a collaboration of the South Walton Artificial Reef Association through the CAA’s partnership program to raise awareness and education and find solutions to community issues through art, including…our marine resources.”
“This will be the first dedicated underwater sculpture museum in the United States,” she continued. “Our intention is for this to be an annual project where we will work with artists nationally, locally, and also internationally to present a sculpture museum of the Gulf of Mexico.”
She explained that permitting already obtained by SWARA could be utilized for the placement of the sculptures, providing for the museum to be in compliance as part of that organization’s state and federally permitted projects.
Steele indicated that plans for the museum had already attracted attention from national and international media. She invited the community to attend an event on the evening of May 10 at Grand Park, Grand Boulevard to celebrate and view sculpture designs selected for the inaugural museum.
She noted that plans were for the sculptures to be put into place in the water in June or July.
In response to questions about the stability of the sculptures, Steele explained that they will be attached to 3,500-pound pedestals, so will be quite heavy. They will be within one nautical mile of shore in about 50 feet of water.
“I think it’s an absolutely wonderful idea,” said Miramar beach resident Suzanne Harris. She spoke in favor of additional funding over and above the requested $25,000.
Camp Creek resident Bob Brooke asked if the amount had been budgeted in the TDC budget. Tusa responded that funds had been set aside in the budget for the museum and for SWARA projects.
Steele said the total budget for the year for the museum would be $60,000 and that the organizations would fund raise for deployment of the sculptures.
“Ditto what Mrs. Harris said,” commented Seagrove resident Leigh Moore.
“I would echo what Mrs. Harris and Leigh said, commented Jim Bagby. He encouraged for continuing funding for the project over the years.
The request was approved with all aye votes.
Another TDC request
The commissioners also approved moving forward with the acquisition process on two parcels intended to house a new TDC visitor center and office. These adjacent parcels are located on the west side of U.S. 331 north of South Walton High School. One parcel is the former Sandcastles location and the other is owned by Regional Utilities. Tusa indicated that the new location would provide for needed additional space for the TDC.
Richard Veldman, TDC chairman, noted that the TDC has been in the current building (at the U.S. 331/U.S. 98 intersection) for 25 years and is “out of room” there. He added ever since U.S. 331 was widened a number of years ago, visitors have had to make two u-turns to access the current location. He said of the new location that with BCC approval, “This is where the TDC will be for the rest of our lives.”
After discussion, the BCC approval was on the condition of Tusa contacting Eglin Air Force Base about the possibility of another alternative, the TDC purchasing or otherwise acquiring approximately three acres of property just north of the South Walton Governmental and Educational Center for the new proposed TDC facility. The property currently contains a large tower, and a number of acres of vacant county property adjoins the tower property, according to discussion.
Affordable / workforce housing
Later during the course of the meeting, District 3 Commissioner Melanie Nipper presented a request to direct staff to bring back a proposal for a planned unit development (PUD) or similar mechanism to “promote and facilitate” affordable/workforce housing on county-owned property near the Mossy Head School.
Discussing the need for what she was proposing, Nipper indicated that Okaloosa and Walton counties had been alerted to expect the arrival within the next couple of years of approximately 2,000 contractors in the area in connection with hypersonic testing that had been approved on Eglin Air Force Base. She commented on the lack of affordable housing in the area, not only for these contractors but for firefighters, teachers, nurses, physical therapists, and military members in the community.
“We have an elevated cost of rentals in our county,” she said.
Nipper noted that the property she was referencing was approximately 140 and acres located just south of the school off U.S. 90.
“I’m kind of a free-market guy,” District 5 Commissioner Tony Anderson responded. He asked if Nipper was proposing for the county to sell this property.
Larry Jones, county administrator, replied that what was envisioned was comparable to what the county had done with the Mossy Head Industrial Park. The next step, he noted, would be to create a PUD to facilitate the process.
District 4 Commissioner Sara Comander repeated the question whether the county would sell the property or develop it on its own. “We haven’t got that far yet,” Jones responded. He indicated that approval of the request would simply mean going forward with the mechanism that he had referenced.
There were many public comments.
Santa Rosa Beach resident Bonnie McQuiston raised a number of questions, among those whether the county would maintain ownership of the property and what type of involvement the county would have. She observed that anytime government tries to replace the free market, government ownership is generated. McQuiston also questioned whether use for affordable housing would be the highest and best use of the county property for taxpayers.
Mossy Head resident Donnie Richardson said he was surprised that no public hearing on the proposal was being held in Mossy Head. “There’s plenty of cheap property for sale in Mossy Head,” he added.
Richardson was one of a number of speakers who suggested that the county keep the 140-acre property in order to avoid the need to buy property when needed later for schools and infrastructure.
“You need to bank this property for future school development,” agreed Jill Graham, representing Bonezzi Development, owner of the Blackstone Golf Course and development project in the Mossy Head area. Graham noted that Bonezzi owns 1,200 acres on the other side of the Mossy Head School from the 140-acre county property.
She advised against putting “low income housing” right on U.S. 90. Starting off with this type of housing in the area would be a problem, she warned, telling the officials that apartments or a mobile home park could be added at some point without presenting a problem once development other than low income housing was in place.
Asked if Blackstone was currently building, Graham said no, explaining that there is no critical need to develop at this time.
“Workforce housing is critical, but I think the private sector will create it,” said Mossy Head resident Teddy Stewart. He shared Graham’s reservations about “starting off” with affordable housing “When you start off with affordable housing, you set the ceiling,” Stewart said. Starting off with affordable housing would probably result in it being or becoming subsidized housing, he predicted.
Tom Baker, executive director for the Walton County Housing Agency, voiced some confusion about what the request was. He acknowledged the need for affordable housing, saying that many people had been calling his office wanting to relocate to Walton County. Baker said he thought today the question was how to proceed with property owned by the county. He observed that one thing was certain, something would need to be done to meet the housing demand.
Nipper suggested examining what was needed in the way of housing, with the goal of making available housing “that we know we need in the county.” She said she felt like she was trying to push a boulder with a toothpick with the issue. Nipper referenced a University of West Florida Haas Center study that was available on affordable housing that could provide guidance.
Cory Mays, a 26-year-old Mossy Head resident who commented that he currently lives with his parents, spoke in support of the effort to provide affordable housing. “Don’t be held back,” he urged.
Amber Jones, who told the commissioners that her family had come from Texas and had encountered difficulty finding an affordable place to live, also spoke in support of the county pursuing affordable housing. She disagreed with the indications of other speakers that this type of housing would “block off anything good for the community.”
“Do we really want affordable housing sitting between the golf course, school, and park?” countered 30+-year Mossy Head resident Terry Crosby. He maintained that there was already plenty of affordable housing in the Mossy Head area. “We have no infrastructure,” Crosby told the commissioners.
“The traffic is horrible… and it is dangerous,” agreed Donna Crosby. She urged for something to be done to improve traffic conditions before more housing and people were brought into the Mossy Head area.
Freeport resident Bill Fletcher said he knew that affordable housing was “desperately needed in this county.” He suggested looking at the Haas Center study and at land that the county has available that would serve the purpose. “This may not be the place for it,” Fletcher observed, speaking of the Mossy Head property.
Comander suggested holding another workshop in the Mossy Head area to gather input on where the greatest need for affordable housing is and how to address that need.
Nipper responded that she would be happy to hold another town hall meeting in the area.
District 2 Commissioner Cecilia Jones said she was glad for Nipper’s passion on this issue. She suggested setting up a committee to bring back recommendations.
Anderson said he also appreciated Nipper’s passion on affordable housing and said he knew workforce housing was needed. However he observed that a lot of questions needed to be answered before the county moved forward on the matter. It was his opinion that the private sector would provide affordable housing in response to demand. Anderson agreed that another public meeting in Mossy Head would be a good idea, with both sides of the issue to be represented and listened to.
“I love all the questions, they absolutely need to be answered,” Nipper responded. She explained that that her purpose had been to get permission to seek staff’s help in getting some sort of general sort of idea or rendition to work with and bring forward for discussion in pursuing the issue. Nipper noted that there was a great deal of interest in the community by people interested in building affordable housing.
Mac Carpenter, county planning and development services director, agreed to work with Nipper and look at the latest Haas Center study on housing.
He also brought up the existing Affordable Housing Advisory Committee that had been appointed by the BCC and was currently an active committee that could be asked to bring recommendations.
Carpenter told the commissioners that coming before them within approximately 30 days would be proposed revisions to the housing element of the Walton County Comprehensive Plan.
He added that there is a requirement in connection with the county’s local housing assistance plan for all surplus county property that could serve as affordable housing locations to be identified annually, with that information being made available to the public. He offered to make that listing available as part of working with Nipper on the issue.
“We want to see good things come to Mossy Head,” Larry Jones commented as the discussion concluded, disclosing that he lives in Mossy Head in a trailer. He voiced appreciation for some of the additions that have come to the community in recent years, including the Dollar General, Blackstone, the McDonald’s, the new businesses at Mossy Head Industrial Park, and the school.