By DOTTY NIST
In a split decision, the Walton County Board of County Commissioners (BCC) has voted to continue to pursue putting in a new road connecting CR-30A with U.S. 98 through Point Washington State Forest.
The BCC held a March 2 special meeting featuring a presentation on the nearly-completed project development and environment (PD&E) study for this potential project, known as the South Walton Connector Road. The meeting took place at South Walton High School.
A PD&E study is aimed at determining location and conceptual design for “build alternatives” for roadway projects, along with examining associated social, economic and environmental effects.
Gregory Garrett and Kaleb McClellan, Engineers from Atkins, consultant to Walton County for the study, furnished the presentation.
The study stated the primary purpose of the connector road project as enhancing the local transportation network connecting U.S. 98 to CR-30A—and secondary purposes as addressing congestion, improving emergency service and evacuation times, and increasing the connectivity of the local multi-modal transportation network.
Among the potential benefits of the project, according to the study, were improved emergency access and transportation network redundancy for emergency evaluation, improved connectivity and safer access to local schools, the possibility of removing traffic “trips” from U.S. 98, and improved multi-modal (trail) connectivity.
Disadvantages of the project identified in the study included environmental impacts on the state forest lands, impacts to wildlife and habitat, temporary construction disruption, and impacts on fire management routines.
Mitigation measures that have been proposed with the project include adding land in the western area of Point Washington State Forest and adding an access point to the forest from the proposed road to enhance accessibility for fire fighting.
Two alternatives identified by the consultants as viable were labeled as C2 and D2. Both alternatives would extend from the area of Bud’s Lane, a short distance east of Lakewood Plaza—and traverse through Point Washington State Forest, running close to the existing power line easement, to a point south of U.S 98 near Dune Lakes Elementary School. The two alignments take slightly different courses within the forest, C2 bearing to the west and D2 bearing to the east.
D2 was identified as the preferred build alignment due to minimization of impacts on fire management in the forest. Advantages of C2 were stated to be reduced cost and less environmental impact.
A 150-foot-wide right of way was also identified as viable for the connector road, with two 11-foot-wide travel lanes and eight-foot-side shoulders, with a 12-foot-wide multi-use path separated by a swale, and with the right-of-way flanked by fences.
Since the potential right-of-way area is owned by the state, it would be necessary for Walton County to acquire ownership or an easement for the connector road. Approval of the state Acquisition and Restoration Council (ARC) in Tallahassee would be a requirement in order for such a purchase to take place. ARC is composed of representatives of state agencies and appointees of the agencies and the governor.
Public comment at the special meeting was almost evenly divided for and against the connector road, with a couple of dozen attendees addressing the commissioners. Sound quality was generally lacking due to the alternate meeting location and was worse for the microphone used mainly by the project opponents.
Speaking in opposition, south Walton County resident Celeste Cobena noted that the county had already heard from the agencies represented on the ARC that they did not support the project. She was critical of the money that had been spent on studies for the project for “a road that you’ll never get.”
Cobena also maintained that the proposed road would not do anything to reduce traffic but would increase the St. Joe Company’s development north of U.S. 98 and in Bay County.
Cobena said the commissioners were ignoring the fact that a road could be put in on St. Joe Company property on the western boundary of Deer Lake State Park adjacent to the park, where there is an existing dirt road.
“The smarter way to do it, is don’t do it,” Point Washington resident James Foley said of the connector road project.
Blue Mountain Beach resident Buz Livingston was in agreement with Cobena that the connector road would not reduce traffic, saying that it would instead create more traffic on CR-30A. He spoke in favor of using money that would be spent on the project studies to instead address traffic safety issues and repair sidewalks.
Preservation of Point Washington State Forest was a common theme among those speaking in opposition. Santa Rosa Beach resident Bonnie McQuiston spoke of residents’ efforts over the years to protect the forest. She warned that the road would be “beginning of the end” for the forest lands.
Concern for public safety was a refrain for supporters of the project. “We do have a public safety problem,” said south Walton County resident Charles Galloway.
Supporters were confident that the road could be constructed in a way to avoid negative impacts on the forest. “I think there’s a way,” Galloway said.
Among others speaking in favor of the project were South Walton Fire District Chief Ryan Crawford and county residents Gary Shipman, Reynolds Henderson, Bob Brooke, Neill O’Connell, and Bo Wills.
With public comment concluded, District 4 Commissioner Donna Johns said she had received “tons of emails” from people opposed to the road and did not believe she had received any in support of it. She made a motion for the “no build” option
Johns reasoned that opening this new right-of-way would not help with providing emergency services, “because the road is going to be just as packed as all the other roads are, and unless it’s dedicated only to emergency services, I don’t think it’s going to be of any benefit.”
Johns indicated that she would be in favor of such a smaller, dedicated road for emergency vehicles that would not be used by the public.
Her motion did not get a second.
District 5 Commissioner Tony Anderson moved to select Alternative D2 and continue pursuing the project as funding becomes available, and his motion was seconded.
County Commission Chairman Danny Glidewell said he understood Johns’s position and the public safety aspects—but that he did not think taxpayers such as parents taking their children to school would be in favor of the county spending the money it would take for a road and the public not being able to use it for a shorter route.
He said he thought it was unfair for people in areas such as Seacrest, Camp Creek, and Alys Beach for north-south roads along CR-30A to be in place every couple of miles along CR-30A but for one to be lacking in this area where those residents needed one.
“There is a way to do this responsibly,” Glidewell said.
Anderson’s motion was approved in a 3-1 vote, with Johns voting no and the District 3 seat still unfilled from the recent resignation of District 3 Commissioner Mike Barker on Feb. 23.
Upcoming steps for the project are to be revisions to the PD&E Impact Report and associated documents to reflect the selected road alternative, circulation of the report for public review, a public meeting on the selected alternative, and a summation of the public meeting to be added to the Phase 1 Final Project Environmental Impact Report by April 30.
Information on the public meeting will be forthcoming.
Information on the South Walton Connector Road Project is available on the Walton County website at the link: /www.co.walton.fl.us/1256/South-Walton-Connector-Road-PDE