Discussion and action focus on open space at Jan. 30 Sandestin NOPC hearing

A county commission motion finding the Sandestin Development of Regional Impact (DRI) 28.13 acres over the requirement for open space failed to carry at the Jan. 30 quasi-judicial hearing in connection with the DRI.
The Walton County Board of County Commissioners (BCC) quasi-judicial hearing took place at the South Walton Annex with a standing-room-only attendance.
Totaling over 1,000 acres, the open space calculated included lakes, golf courses, golf course easements on private lots, archaeological property, nature preserve, beach, dune preserve, tennis courts, power line easement, 100 percent of major road right-of-ways, and 50 percent of minor road right-of-ways.
DRIs are Florida developments deemed to have a substantial effect on people residing in more than one county, either due to the character, size or location of the development. These developments are subject to regional and state review for approval, along with special review on a regional and state level of their development plans.
According to Florida Statutes, local governments issuing development orders for DRIs hold primary responsibility for monitoring DRIs and enforcing their development order provisions. In instances where a developer “fails to act in substantial compliance” with the DRI development order, state statutes direct that no permits, approvals, or extensions of service are to be approved by the local government.
Walton County staff have maintained the position that a 1984 agreement with between Sandestin and the state Department of Community Affairs (DCA) had “set the benchmark” for residential, nonresidential, and open space acreage requirements for the DRI.
In June 2014, the BCC had found the Sandestin Development of Regional Impact (DRI) not in substantial complex with its development order and had directed a Notice of Proposed Change (NOPC) procedure prior to additional development activity. According to the BCC’s findings, among the issues identified with the DRI had been a reduction in open space and an increase in commercial beyond that provided for in the development order.
It had been directed at that time that further development at Sandestin would first require an NOPC procedure and approval. Subsequent consultation with the state Department of Economic Opportunity (DEO) had clarified that this requirement would not apply to the entire Sandestin DRI but just to the property owned by Sandestin Investments, Inc. (SDI), the developer found out of compliance. Headed by Tom Becnel, SDI is owner of Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort.
Property now separated and under different ownership from the resort, including Grand Boulevard and the Driftwood property, are still considered part of the Sandestin DRI.
Two NOPC applications filed by SDI were withdrawn. After a hearing of the current application by the Walton County Planning Commission on Dec. 19, there was a recommendation by that board for conditional approval, with most of the conditions related to open space.
At the Jan. 30 BCC hearing, Dana Matthews, an attorney representing SDI, reported that after the planning commission meeting SDI representatives had met as directed with county staff to work out the open space issues.
He said the outcome was that “the county” was now in support of a finding that the NOPC would not represent a substantial deviation from the DRI development order and also that excess open space existed. However, Matthews said SDI and the county differed on the amount of excess open space, with the county maintaining that it was approximately 28 acres. “We believe we have 80 acres,” he said.
Mark Davis, county attorney, asked for it to be clarified that it was county planning staff that had indicated support of these findings and not the BCC. Matthews agreed.
“Sandestin is the greenest resort we have in Walton County,” Matthews continued, stating that Sandestin has almost double the open space that is now required of developers, “and we’re not trying to change that threshold.”
A number of attorneys representing affected parties within the DRI made presentations at the hearing. Gary Hunter, an attorney representing the Sandestin Owners Association (SOA), charged that SDI had not added any open space since the finding of noncompliance—but that what was being presented was just a “repackaging” of their application to get open space.
“Every tree in Sandestin is now open space according to their definition,” he complained. He added that if the proposed open space were approved, the county would be saying that SDI would be able to determine whether some lot owners would be able to have a pool on their property.
“If that were your back yard, I don’t think you would be happy,” he said.
Later there was testimony that SDI already had this ability, with or without the approval of the open space proposal.
Shawn Heath, an attorney representing Greater Driftwood Estates homeowners, introduced expert witness Charles Gauthier, formerly of DCA, who called the open space proposal “a paperwork fix.”
Gauthier testified that the 1984 agreement had called for open space to be “separate polygons…large tracts of open land” to help protect the Choctawhatchee Bay as the area was developed.
While it would be possible to modify open space for the DRI, it would be advisable to first address the drainage problems that are being experienced in the development, he urged.
Heath warned that approval of the proposal would result in the county “buying lawsuits,” filed either by lot owners for which SDI had vetoed putting in pools, or by SDI if the county granted permission for a pool and did not notify SDI. He also noted that road right-of-way within Driftwood Estates being claimed as open space is county-maintained roadway.
David Theriaque, an attorney representing the Driftwood Two condominium, stated that, while SDI has vested rights and the right to complete their approved development order, vesting is lost when there is a change to the development order. He argued that a neighborhood right-of-way cannot be considered undeveloped land suitable for conservation uses and therefore does not qualify to be counted as open space. It was not considered so in the 1984 agreement, so making that change “is a change to the DRI,” he said, along with inclusion of easements on lots next to the golf course as open space.
“You have sole discretion,”Theriaque told the commissioners, to decide whether the definition of open space should be changed. He urged that they ask themselves, “Is that a good idea?”
Representing Driftwood II, attorney Nick Beninati echoed Hunter in maintaining that approving the open space proposal could “create a risk for the county,” adding that he did not know what the benefit would be to approve it.
The commissioners heard from more than two dozen speakers in public comment, with sentiment roughly evenly divided between those favoring approval of the open space proposal and/or NOPC and those asking for a no vote. Approximately half of those speaking in favor identified themselves as Sandestin employees. Two representatives of the Florida Restaurant & Lodging Association of Northwest Florida, Ray Green and Bruce Craul, spoke in favor of NOPC approval.
A common theme for those urging for approval was the need to repair the resort’s aging facilities and amenities, along with economic benefits of growth and development.
“Our product is very aged,” said Rick Hughes, director of facilities and services for the resort. He commented that new development was “key” to the process of updating facilities.
Representing an association of homeowners on the south side of the resort, Andrew Salmon countered that the commissioners should consider what the impacts would be on the lifestyle of the permanent residents. He spoke in opposition based on the factors of traffic, drainage, and beach crowding, all of which he warned would worsen with additional development.
“Don’t do this unless you want us to all sue,” Driftwood Estates resident Alan Osborne told the commissioners.
Melissa Cocks, a 16-year Sandestin resident, said she did not understand how her back yard “figured” into the open space proposal. “I don’t want to give up my right to put something in my back yard,” she said.
Matthews responded that SDI was not seeking an ownership interest in anyone’s property but only to identify existing open space. If something were built on property identified as open space, this would be reported and open space calculations would be reduced accordingly, he explained.
“We’re getting away from the original design,” District 3 Commissioner Melanie Nipper complained in reference to the open space proposal. Getting away from the large open space polygons in favor of identifying open space as portions of private lots and roads “just doesn’t seem to fit in,” she commented, asking why the county needed to accept a new definition of open space.
“Where it’s located is not material,” responded Wayne Dyess, county director of planning and development services. Dyess explained that his biggest concern was not where the open space was located—but that it would be monitored and accounted for. He assured the commissioners that staff would see that this was done.
District 1 Commissioner Bill Chapman expressed concern that homeowners’ back yards were being used as part of the open space calculation. “To me it’s a property rights thing,” he said.
Greg Stewart, an attorney representing county staff, said staff was comfortable with the golf course easements on private lots being counted as open space, as control was in place on those by SDI, but not with common areas that were proposed because SDI did not have control of those. This issue resulted in disagreement over common space acreage numbers as calculated by staff versus SDI.
Nipper asked what had changed since SDI was found out of compliance with its DRI development order in 2014.
“It was an effort by staff to reach out and find a middle ground,” Stewart responded.
Davis commented that since 2014 agreement had been reached on many issues that SDI had previously disagreed with the county on, including that the applicable benchmark for open space is 1031.1 acres. He added that SDI had done “ground truthing” on land uses within the DRI. The BCC could agree or not agree on the open space proposal, Davis noted.
District 5 Commissioner Tony Anderson moved for approval of the open space proposal per staff recommendation. This was with the inclusion of the golf course easements but excluding the common area portions that staff had not recommended due to lack of control by SDI, and calculated an excess of 28.13 acres over required open space.
The motion failed in a 2-3 vote, with Anderson and County Commissioner Chair Cecilia Jones voting in favor and Chapman, Nipper, and District 3 Commissioner Sara Comander voting no.
Due to time constraints, the almost-six-hour hearing was concluded with plans for a continuance in order for additional requests by SDI related to the NOPC proposal, along with the NOPC proposal itself, to be heard by the BCC. It was determined that there would be a continuance to the 4 p.m. Feb. 14 BCC regular meeting, at which time the commissioners would schedule a time, place, and venue for the additional requests to be heard, along with the possibility of another motion with regard to the open space proposal. There is to be no other action regarding the NOPC on Feb. 14 other than scheduling of the follow-up hearing.