COUNTY COMMISSIONERS at the July 11 Walton County Board of County Commissioners regular meeting. (Photo by Dotty Nist)
By DOTTY NIST
What is considered a major development project and what is considered a minor project? This could change for Walton County, and there is a difference in the county’s process in considering major versus minor projects.
Request for changes to project thresholds:
A request to amend the Walton County Land Development Code (LDC) to change the numerical thresholds for major and minor development projects was brought forward at the Walton County Board of County Commissioners (BCC) July 11 regular meeting at the South Walton Annex. The stated purpose of the requested amendment was, “to streamline the development review process and make it more consistent with other local governments in our area, thereby reducing the time required to obtain most development orders in Walton County,” according to the meeting agenda. Mac Carpenter, county planning and development services director, brought forward the request.
Major development projects generally require review and approval to move forward by the Walton County Technical Review Committee (TRC), followed by review and a recommendation by the Walton County Planning Commission, and then final consideration by the Walton County Board of County Commissioners. In contrast, the TRC is able to make final determinations on minor projects in many instances without review by the planning commission and county commission being required. Development orders are subsequently issued by the planning director upon project approval by the TRC.
The TRC includes county planning, engineering, building department, 9-1-1, and emergency operations staff, along with representatives of the fire districts, utility companies, school board, mosquito control, health department, environmental agencies, and the Eglin Air Force Base Encroachment Office. TRC meetings are regularly held at 8:30 a.m. on first Wednesdays of the month at the South Walton Annex and are open to the public. Major/minor project thresholds are set in Chapter 11 of the LDC. They apply to number of parcels into which land is being divided, dwelling units for multi-family residential projects, and square feet of floor area for non-residential projects.
According to the proposed revision language presented at the July 11 BCC meeting: the major project threshold for division of land would be raised from 20 parcels to 50 parcels; from 30 to 60 dwelling units for multi-family residential projects; and from 5,000 square feet to 50,000 square feet of floor area for non-residential projects. Technical plans for an affordable housing project previously approved conceptually by the BCC would continue to be considered as a minor development. Also the planning director would continue to be able to deem a project “subject to more thorough consideration and review” under certain conditions.
More than a dozen citizens in attendance addressed the commissioners in connection with the proposed changes, and District 4 Commissioner Sara Comander suggested waiting to consider any such changes until after the Matrix Group finishes its review of the LDC and Walton County Comprehensive Plan (CP) and presents its recommendations. Many of the citizens speaking expressed agreement on the latter suggestion.
Matrix has been tasked with proposing revisions to eliminate conflicts in the LDC and CP and bring the two documents into compliance with one another.
Carpenter responded that Chapter 11 would be outside the scope of the Matrix study. He added that in the last couple of months the planning department “ran out of time” on a number of projects and had to delay hearings on the projects, which results in developers incurring additional cost.
South Walton County resident Jacquee Markel expressed concern about the citizens losing out on the ability for public comment on many projects if the changes were approved. While Carpenter pointed out that public comment is taken at TRC, Markel commented that 8:30 a.m. meetings are difficult for working people to attend.
County Commission Chair Cecilia Jones responded that the BCC would consider holding TRC meetings in the evening if there were a decision to go with the proposed revisions.
Rich Jaffe of the Historic Inlet Beach Neighborhood Association told the commissioners, “The process now is daunting enough.” He said of additional cost being incurred by developers, “I don’t care.” Bigger projects and less communication would be “insanity,” Jaffe concluded.
Carpenter brought up new planning software that he said would be in use soon which would allow anyone to go online 24-7 and see what projects are under review and approved, and would provide detailed information on the projects. This will be available long before the proposed revisions would be implemented if the BCC opts to proceed with them, he explained. “We want the public to know everything that’s going on,” Carpenter said.
South Walton County resident Lisa Boushy brought up additional impacts to stormwater and infrastructure associated with larger projects. She was in agreement with Comander’s suggestion about waiting for the Matrix recommendations.
Inlet Beach resident Richard Bryan cautioned against putting development on a “fast track” beyond what the infrastructure would be able to handle. He added that citizens may be able to bring up details in connection with developments that may not be picked up by the planning department.
Santa Rosa Beach resident Bob Hudson did not understand the desire to be more like neighboring areas with shorter development review processes. “We want to be different,” he said. Freeport resident Bill Fletcher was in agreement with Hudson, saying that the answer to whether residents want Walton County to be more like Bay County or Okaloosa County is, “no!” Santa Rosa Beach resident Bonnie McQuiston also commented that to be like other areas was not a good reason for changing the LDC.
Miramar Beach resident Suzanne Harris suggested that, since Matrix is being paid approximately $360,000 for its work for Walton County, that a look at Chapter 11 of the LDC be included with their study. She predicted that if the proposed changes were approved, “the big developers will profit.”
“What is driving this train?” Jim Bagby asked. He commented that three months is not a long time for a developer to wait if $1 million is going to be made on a project.
Randy Gardner, who does development in the local area and other areas of the state, pointed out that places where people live and shop exist because “a developer took a chance.” He disagreed with the idea that developers always make a million or more on projects. Gardner spoke in support of looking at changes to the major development thresholds, which he called, “low.” “It hamstrings the administration of Walton County,” he contended.
“We do not have a lack of development in Walton County,” south Walton County resident Amanda Schuette later countered, calling for development rules to, if anything, be made more strict.
“I’m a builder, and I think this is ludicrous,” Alan Ficarra said of the proposed changes.
A decision on exploring the revisions:
Despite the mostly-negative public comment, District 5 Commissioner Tony Anderson still expressed willingness for changes to the thresholds to be explored. He indicated that, although he was not sure what number for the non-residential major development threshold should be, it should be more than 5,000 square feet.
Anderson observed that out of the approximately 100 people in the room, “that’s not all of south Walton.”
He moved to proceed with public hearings on revisions to the thresholds with no specific numbers attached, beginning with the Walton County Planning Commission, and to ask that board for their recommendation. District 1 Commissioner Bill Chapman seconded.
Comander disagreed, saying that there should first be a “cooling-off period,” then a look at what the new software could do, then a look at “what Matrix can do for us.”
“Let’s get it right the first time,” she urged.
With a vote taken, Anderson’s motion carried in a 3-1 vote, with Comander voting no and District 3 Commissioner Melanie Nipper not present for the meeting.