By DOTTY NIST
A May 3 public meeting hosted by Walton County District 4 Commissioner Sara Comander included highlights of recent progress by Walton County and a chance for the public to share ideas for future goals.
The first of a series to be held in different locations throughout the county, the meeting took place at the Coastal Branch Library.
Comander noted that she had started visioning efforts soon after she was elected in 2006 and had held the last series of visioning meetings in 2012. Recently she sought residents’ responses in an online visioning survey.
Comander shared the vision and mission approved by the Walton County Board of County Commissioners (BCC) in October 2010. The vision was: “Sustain and enhance Walton County’s Vitality, Environment and Community Character.”
The mission was: “Delivery of public services that advance the County’s high value priorities and improves the quality of life.”
Attendees were presented with a look at accomplishments since 2012 toward that vision and mission.
From the growth management standpoint, among accomplishments detailed was the interagency county effort spearheaded by Comander that made broadband available in 2016 at county government and school buildings and facilities countywide.
This was a partnership effort of the county, the Walton County School District, the Walton County Sheriff’s Office (WCSO), and the Walton County Clerk of Courts. The pilot program resulting in this achievement has become a model for the state.
“It’s all about cooperation, sharing information, and knowing we all work for one entity, the people of this county,” Comander said.
Walton County Public Information Manager Louis Svehla explained that all facilities of the county and school district are now running on fiber installed as part of the pilot effort.
The county is continuing to apply for grants and work on public-private partnerships to expand broadband to homes and businesses countywide.
On the economic development front, the development over the past several years by the county of the Mossy Head Industrial Park was highlighted. Businesses at the industrial park now include Love’s Travel Stop, Empire Truck Sales, Southern Tire Mart, Sleep Inn, I-10 Truck Sales, Busby Distribution, and FedEx, with a Waffle House coming soon. The park includes a WCSO substation and a wastewater treatment plan.
Comander reported that the Freeport Industrial Park Phase I had been sold out, with four of the five parcels in Phase II being sold and Phase III for the park in the development order process. In addition, Walton County is partnering with DeFuniak Springs on the possibility of developing workforce housing along U.S. 90 West.
Comander has been an advocate for a train stop in DeFuniak Springs. There has been a partnership effort between local governments and Opportunity Florida to bring Amtrak passenger service back to the Panhandle within the next three to five years, and she was hopeful of making the rail stop a reality when that service is restored.
On the transportation front, upcoming paving of many dirt roads was discussed, along with current and upcoming construction of new bridges and replacement of old ones, road reconstruction, widening and resurfacing of roads, road overlay, and drainage improvements.
As part of Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) projects, it was reported that 481 roads have been repaired from impacts of recent storm events and that milled asphalt has been applied to 126 miles of dirt roads.
The county’s artificial reef program as part of a partnership with the South Walton Artificial Reef Association was highlighted among environmental efforts. It was noted that the Draper Lake Bridge had been completed, with funding obtained for three more bridges to replace culverts at coastal dune lakes along CR-30A.
Ongoing environmental projects include a partnership effort to assess sediment pollution within the Choctawhatchee River watershed and an environmental assessment of the coastal dune lakes.
Svehla reported that the new sports complex on U.S. 98 east was very close to going out for construction bids. Plans for the complex include baseball and soccer fields, tennis courts, restrooms and concessions, playgrounds, a water feature, parking, a walking trail loop, and other amenities. He reported on a recent lease agreement with the Boys & Girls Club providing for the use of fields at the club’s Santa Rosa Beach facility. Those plans include areas for lacrosse in the near future, he said.
Comander reported on the results of her recent online survey, which showed that residents rated economic development, better planning/control of development, and protection and preservation, all as equally important.
Other highly-ranked goals of residents, she continued, included enforcement of ordinances/limiting of variances, more beach access, additional code enforcement staff, parking/traffic, safety for bicyclists and pedestrians, and more schools.
She spoke of plans to open the “Grayton Grand” property on CR-283 South, now under county ownership, to the public for parking, adding that a tram to provide transportation to the beach from the parking area would be a future possibility. Svehla brought up interlocal agreements with Topsail Hill Preserve State Park and Grayton Beach State Park that are up for approval, providing for seasonal waiver and reimbursement of admission fees by the Walton County Tourist Development Council (TDC).
He emphasized that an aquatic center, a popular idea in the south Walton Community, is not dead. In fact, Svehla said a way to make it a reality is something that is constantly being explored, possibly through use of grant funds. Currently there is no public pool south of the bay in Walton County.
The difficulty is that public pools in the area have had trouble staying open, Svehla noted. Comander said she is a big supporter of aquatic activities but observed that pools are very expensive to build and especially to maintain.
When attendees were asked to comment on their priorities, Santa Rosa Beach resident Celeste Cobena spoke out for a plan to put bike paths along both sides of the road along CR-30A. She also spoke in support of electric-assisted bikes being allowed on the paths, especially for the benefit of people who are not in prime physical condition.
Cobena spoke to the need for the county to reclaim all right-of-ways and also advocated a trolley system with more comprehensive hours and with stops at state parks.
With another visioning meeting held at Paxton Town Hall on May 10, other upcoming meetings in the series are scheduled for May 24 at Freeport Community Center and May 31 at the DeFuniak Springs Community Center. All meetings start at 5 p.m. Members of the public are encouraged to attend and provide input.
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