Eight projects get Local RESTORE Act Committee recommendation

By DOTTY NIST

Eight projects, recently submitted to be considered for moneys coming directly to Walton County in connection with the RESTORE Act, have each received a recommendation from Walton County’s Local RESTORE Act Committee (LRAC), with a $1.25 million Choctawhatchee Bay Estuary Program receiving the top ranking by the committee.

The 11-member county-appointed volunteer committee had met in public session on May 23 to vote on the project applications in connection with available RESTORE Act “Pot 1” funds, which come directly to the county.

The RESTORE Act, also known as the Resources and Ecosystems Sustainability, Tourist Opportunities, and Revived Economies of the Gulf States Act, was approved in 2012 by the United States Congress to help with the recovery of the gulf states from the impacts of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, with penalties assessed against parties responsible for the oil spill providing most of the recovery funding associated with the act.

According to Melinda Gates, environmental specialist and coastal resources liaison for Walton County Public Works Environmental, as of April 9, $9,999,437.29 had been allocated to Walton County in RESTORE Act Pot 1 funding.

Allowable uses for the funding include are job creation, infrastructure projects benefitting economic or ecological resources, restoration of and mitigation of damage to natural resources, coastal flood protection, tourism promotion, federally-approved marine, coastal or comprehensive conservation management plans, promotion of gulf seafood consumption, planning assistance, and state park improvements in affected coastal areas. Attached to each of the allowable uses is a numerical value assigned by the Walton County Board of County Commissioners (BCC) which the LRAC uses in scoring applications.

The first round of project applications to the committee took place in 2015, with over 40 applications submitted. According to Gates, this resulted in $6,471,391.53 in Pot 1 funding being dedicated to 17 of those projects.

This left $3,528,045.76 available for new Pot 1 projects, with an estimated $2 million to be received annually through 2031, according to Gates, and with the next funding installment expected in April 2019. Project submittals for 2108 numbered just eight.

The list of recommended projects for 2018, in order of ranking by the committee, follows:

Choctawhatchee Bay Estuary Program – Comprehensive Conservation Management Plan

The top-ranked estuary program would feature a Comprehensive Conservation Management Plan (CCMP) aimed at protecting and enhancing the water quality, habitat, and species that rely on the Choctawhatchee Bay and its watershed, and thereby supporting the region’s economic sustainability and values of the community. It is noted that, due to the region’s integrated groundwater and surface water hydrology, water quality improvements improve the operation of water utilities and water supply availability.

The CCMP is to follow a model format established by National Estuary programs. Plans are for Walton County to work with Okaloosa, Holmes, and Washington counties and also the state of Alabama to develop the CCMP.

U.S. 331 Water – Sewer Project

The U.S. 331 water-sewer project is a $5 million request by Walton County. The newly-widened corridor is expected to “explode,” with commercial and industrial development, according to the submittal, which explains that the project would provide “much needed” water and sewer infrastructure along the highway corridor in order to assist businesses in relocating to the area.

Plans are for this infrastructure to be created through public-private partnerships, with the goals of improving economic diversity, growing the economy and enhancing its sustainability. The project is to emphasize environmental soundness of this infrastructure to enhance quality of life and protect natural resources.

The first phase of the project is to provide the planning, design, and permitting required to construct the infrastructure. Plans are for other funding sources to pay costs of the construction phase.

Camp Longleaf

Camp Longleaf is a $600,000 request on behalf of the Freeport-based E.O. Wilson Biophilia Center. The camp would be the first and only overnight environmental education camp facility in Walton County, according to the application. Education at the camp would focus on science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) subjects. Plans are for the camp to serve 2,000 campers annually with full utilization. The RESTORE Act Pot 1 funding would partially fund construction of the camp, along with operating costs for the first year.

Westonwood Ranch

Westonwood Ranch is a $455,064 request that would provide funding for a 12,000-square-foot facility in Freeport providing vocational and life skill training to young adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and related development disorders. The facility would include a covered horse arena and stables, along with an aquaphonic greenhouse. Skill sets aimed at translating into employment opportunities in the area would be emphasized, and plans are for ranch programs to foster relationships with local businesses that would serve as internship locations and employment opportunities for program participants.

Sustainable Economic Matrix and Master Plan

The Sustainable Economic Matrix and Master Plan (SEMMP) plan, a $100,000 request, would focus on addressing the issues of workforce development, job creation, infrastructure and tourism promotion in Walton County by building strategies to protect the sustainability and resiliency of the county’s economy and diversifying the economic base. It would encompass public/private action through infrastructure improvements, building rehabilitation, infill projects, new housing developments, green space design, recruitment of retail and commercial businesses, and private investment incentives. Goals would be better career opportunities, housing options, and quality of life.

Walton County Choctawhatchee River Trail

A $763,616.02 request by Walton County, the Choctawhatchee River Trail Project would consist of the rehabilitation and construction of four to five paddle trail camping and/or landing locations along the Choctawhatchee River. This would result in a 57-mile trip with opportunities for visiting natural springs and experiencing the region’s plants and animals, along with enjoyment of fishing and camping. The trail would connect with the Holmes Creek Paddling Trail. It would also intersect with the Florida National Scenic Trail.

Camping locations would range from primitive campsites to riverside cabins. Other features would include overnight canoe and kayak storage, multi-use ramps, and screened decks and pavilions.

Biophilia Center Public Day-Events Camps

The Biophilia Center Public Day-Events Camps, a $200,000 annual request through year 2031 on behalf of the E.O. Wilson Biophilia Center, would assist the center with expenses associated with public days, events, and summer day camp programs. The center has provided environmental educations to students from five area school districts and the public for the past nine years at no charge to participants.

Driftwood Drainage Retrofit

Driftwood Drainage Retrofit is a $2.68 million request on behalf of Walton County. It would consist of five phases of drainage retrofits in the Driftwood Estates Subdivision, including piping of stormwater into centrally-located treatment basins, where the stormwater would be treated before being discharged into the bay.

BCC review of
projects

The projects total slightly over $11 million in cost. As of press time, the BCC was scheduled to take up the LRAC recommendations on the project submittals during the course of its 4 p.m. June 12 regular meeting at the South Walton Annex.