By DOTTY NIST
“We are not going to have any roads through Point Washington State Forest or Deer Lake State Park,” south Walton County resident Celeste Cobena asserted in public comment at the Aug. 21 meeting on a potential new north-south connector road in south Walton County.
However, options for a potential road running through the state forest are being studied in detail and were among those presented at the public meeting, which was held at the newly-opened Dune Lakes Elementary School in southeastern Walton County.
This was an informational and public input meeting hosted by Walton County and Atkins, design, engineering and project management consultants contracted by the county. Atkins is engaged in a project development and environment (PD&E) study on a potential new north-south connector road that would link CR-30A with U.S. 98 in the area from CR-395 to the east.
In attendance at the meeting were 156 members of the public. It began with an open house during which attendees could talk one-on-one with consultants and view maps and other informational materials that were part of the study. The open house was followed by brief remarks by Atkins Project Manager Greg Garrett and then a recorded presentation. This was followed by another open house portion and a public comment period.
Sixteen people in attendance spoke in opposition to a road through the forest, with four people speaking in favor of such a road and/or the study and one person calling for a compromise.
According to the presentation:
The PD&E study is considered one of the early phases of the potential road project. It was preceded by an initial planning phase, and future steps would include design and right-of-way acquisition, followed by construction.
The PD&E study will include evaluation of social, economic, and environmental effect of the potential project. The study is to yield recommendations regarding the alternatives based on impacts, benefits, and public input.
If a “build alternative” is approved at the end of the study, the project would then move to the next phase, creation of design plans.
Completion of the PD&E phase is scheduled for September 2020. Coordination meetings with the public and with appropriate agencies, some of which have already taken place, are to continue in the meantime.
The presentation referenced past traffic studies in the area of the potential project. These were provided by Genesis (2006) and Atkins (2016).
According to the presentation: “Both indicated a potential need for network improvement.” “The potential for a roadway in this area has been discussed for many years,” per the presentation.
The purpose for considering a new connector road was stated as: “to enhance the local transportation network connecting US 98 to CR 30A.”
A secondary purpose was stated as: “to address congestion, improve emergency services and evacuation times, and improve the local multi-modal transportation network.”
The presentation turned to details on the alternatives under consideration in the study. It was noted that some alternatives originally included with the study had been removed from consideration and one alternative had been added. All but one of the alternatives currently included for further study involve a two-lane road running through Point Washington State Forest.
The exception, Alternative A, involves the widening of CR-395 to a four-lane roadway with bicycles lanes and a multi-use path.
The other options, Alternatives B, C1, C2, D1, and D2, all involve two-lane roads running through the state forest and leading to M.C. Davis Boulevard on the north end. This is the road on the north side of U.S. 98 providing access to Dune Lakes Elementary School and the Walton County Sports Complex (under construction).
All these five options would begin at CR-30A from locations in the vicinity of Eastern Lake. Two of the options (D1 and D2) would border the power line right-of-way.
Technical documents to be prepared as part of the study are to be a Natural Resource Evaluation and a Project Environmental Impact Report.
According to the presentation: “It is understood that impacts from the potential improvements would need to be mitigated. Walton County intends for there to be a ‘net benefit’ from this project.” It was also noted that Walton County was committed to prohibiting development along any potential road through the state forest.
Listed as potential mitigation were the following: stormwater treatment, land swap, public amenities, fire management enhancement, trails, wildlife crossings, purchase of credits, and state forest improvements.
Bonnie McQuiston, the first citizen to address the gathering, commented, “Walton County does not own Point Washington State Forest or Deer Lake State Park. These belong to the people of Florida. We claim ownership.”
“Point Washington State Forest was bought with Save our Coast and Preservation 2000 funds,” McQuiston continued. “The Conservation and Development Trust Plan, adopted by Walton County in 1996, balanced development with conservation. Twenty-three years later, development is running at breakneck speed. Every inch of private property on 98 and 30A will be developed. Our state land is the only conservation part of that plan that will be left standing. It is the only green space reserved in south Walton for future generations. It is worth fighting for,” McQuiston emphasized.
McQuiston questioned whether the road proposal might be motivated by a desire by the St. Joe Company for their developments north of U.S. 98 to have direct access to the beach in Walton County.
She was of the opinion that it was not a viable option for Walton County to obtain land for a road through the forest. “The county cannot afford to buy 2 1/2 miles of easements, mitigate wetlands, lay asphalt, and build wildlife crossings.”McQuiston said. “People in this county have lived here for years who still don’t have paved roads. They may not like the idea of paying in excess of $20 million for a road that will save six minutes commute time,” she continued.
“Another county highway will import more traffic to 30A, not export traffic, and will create another three-way intersection bottleneck on 30A,” McQuiston predicted.
“For the people of Florida, Walton County has the responsibility of stewardship for Point Washington State Forest. Our state land defines the character of south Walton. It sets us apart from neighboring counties. It has created wealth south of the bay beyond comprehension. Point Washington State Forest is not a resource for exploitation. A county highway running through its center is not negotiable. Paradise lost can never be regained,” McQuiston concluded.
Celeste Cobena observed that Point Washington State Forest and adjoining Deer Lake State Park are the largest piece of conservation land in south Walton County. “It will not be fragmented for someone’s convenience,” she said. “We want this land protected for our future.”
Also speaking in opposition to a road through the forest, south Walton County resident Carolynn Zonia urged for other options to maximize the efficiency of CR-30A.
South Walton County resident and engineer Neill O’Connell spoke in favor of a new roadway connection. He was of the opinion that it would reduce traffic and enhance public safety.
Bob Murphy, a Grayton Beach resident since 1981, commented that state park land is more difficult to manage if it is fragmented and that prescribed burns become harder to accomplish. This could result in park land having to be sold off, he warned.
“Get rid of the golf carts on 30A,” Murphy also urged.
Kent Wimmer, senior Northwest Florida representative for Defenders of Wildlife, pledged that his organization would actively oppose at the state level any part of the forest being used for a road. He called for a focus on other alternatives and for habitat connectivity to be emphasized in the forest.
“To me it’s sacred ground,” Eastern Lake resident Caroling Geary said of the forest. She recommended that anyone thinking about putting a road through the forest first walk the property and experience its beauty.
Point Washington resident Frank Day called for “pulling back” encroachments in order to improve efficiency of existing roads.
Calling CR-30A “overburdened,” Rosemary Beach Town Manager David Bailey said Rosemary Beach was very concerned about traffic. He spoke in support of the county proceeding with the study, but was in agreement with other speakers that attention should first be given to existing roads in order to improve their efficiency.
“Please say no to this road,” urged Dave Clausen, president of the Choctwhatchee Audubon Society.
Camp Creek Lake resident Bob Brooke said he would like to see a compromise and thought it would be possible. “I’m in favor of getting traffic off 30A, but not at the expense of damaging the forest,” he said.
South Walton County resident Jim Rester said he thought everyone recognized a traffic problem on CR-30A and observed that the question is what to do. He noted that there are already roads running through the forest (in place before it was acquired by the state). Rester said he did not think it would be doing anyone a service to say that nothing would be done to improve the traffic situation.
“The advantages outweigh the disadvantages,” said Charles Rigdon, speaking of a new road. He spoke in favor of the effort accompanied by ensuring limited access to the road and wildlife crossings.
Information available, opportunity for written comment
Information on the study data presented at the meeting is available online on the project website, www.co.walton.fl.us/1256/South-Walton-Connector-Road-PDE. Written comments in connection with details of the study are also being taken through Aug. 31 by email to Lauren Boes of Atkins at Lauren.Boes@atkinsglobal.com. Boes may also be contacted by phone at (866) 940-7275.