COMMISSIONERS HEAR presentations and testimony for Azzurro Condominium.
By DOTTY NIST
The controversial Azzurro Condominium, proposed for an undeveloped beachfront parcel in the Eastern Lake community, garnered final approval from the county at an Aug. 15 special meeting, with four other quasi-judicial proposals approved, as well, at the five-hour session.
The Walton County Board of County Commissioners (BCC) meeting took place at the South Walton Annex.
The quasi-judicial hearing on Azzurro began with Mac Carpenter, county planning and development services director, stating that the proposed plans met the requirements of the Walton County Comprehensive Plan (CP) and Land Development Code (LDC),
Representing applicant Cliff Harbour, attorney Dana Matthews presented the request. He was assisted by other professionals speaking for the applicant.
According to the staff report for the proposal, it was for a four-story, 12-unit condominium on a 3.11-acre site on San Roy Road, one-half mile south of the Lakewood Drive/CR-30A West intersection.
A previous proposal for the property had been Angelo’s, a condominium with upwards of 20 units that the Walton County Board of County Commissioners (BCC) had declined to approve in July 2007, due to staff indicating that the plans did not meet a code requirement calling for 95 percent preservation of the native dune plant community on a portion of the site. A couple of months later, the BCC had approved a downsized version, consisting of 13 multifamily units, with county preservation requirements deemed to have been met and all construction planned for the landward side of the coastal construction control line. However, the condominium was never constructed.
There have been efforts by the county to purchase the undeveloped site with its native dune area and rare plant community, for preservation and public use, going back to 2008 or earlier, when the county sought a Florida Communities Trust grant for this purpose. More recently, within the past few years there has been consideration of acquiring the property for the public with Walton County Tourist Development Council (TDC) funds. However, after obtaining appraisals the county did not follow through with purchasing the property.
Matthews told the commissioners that a pool and pool area in the previously-approved plans had been moved to the top of the eastern building. He explained that the proposed project “does not impact the primary dune system” and that it “barely impacts” the secondary dunes.
Also not disturbed would be a county easement on the property providing the public with access across the property to the beach, Matthews continued.
On the 3.11-acre site, only 0.45 acre is to be impervious, Matthews noted.
Describing the 12-unit condominium as a “high-end project,” anticipated for second homes, he said there are to be a total of 37 bedrooms, with construction ranging from 45 feet to 49 feet in height. Matthews said parking was to total 32 spaces plus 12 golf cart spaces.
He pledged that a beach habitat plan approved by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service would be part of the condominium documents and would be honored by the condominium association.
Matthews explained that the developer had agreed to a University of Florida research project on the site in which experimental planting and monitoring of a variety of native beach plants would take place.
In response to a question, engineer Dean Burgis, speaking for the applicant, said that stormwater features would be located under the condominium, with an exfiltration system designed to meet 100-year storm requirements.
Due to the site being in a Neighborhood Infill land use area, a compatibility analysis was required to be submitted with the application. A Feb. 1, 2017 compatibility analysis by attorney and planner Lois La Seur had been submitted with the conclusion that the development would be “compatible with both the properties developed in like manner as well as with the density of the area within a quarter mile radius.”
Planner Buddy Page of Professional Growth Management Services, present for the applicant, concurred with La Seur’s analysis, saying that the project would be compatible with existing uses “on the ground” in the vicinity of the site. He described the subject area as an income-stream-producing one due to the number of homes being rented out on a short-term basis.
Speaking on behalf of opponents of the project, planner Allara Mills Gutcher disagreed, saying that in her opinion this would not be a compatible project. An alleged lack of compatibility was also an objection raised by Will Dunaway, an attorney representing a group of neighboring property owners, and by many of the homeowners who directly addressed the BCC in opposition to the condominium project.
More than a dozen Eastern Lake residents and property owners testified, all speaking against the project.
“This massive project has basically stunned us,” said Lakeview Drive homeowner Susan Edwards. She said that her family would never had brought their home if they had known that such a project was planned for the beach near their home.
Eastern Lake homeowner Brenda Rees spoke about the history of the area and told the commissioners that the neighborhood consists of mostly single-family homes and long-term property owners. “It’s very local, and it’s not all rentals,” she said. Rees warned of flooding danger. “Let’s do the right thing and deny this,” she urged.
“We need to preserve what we can,” said Gulf Drive resident William Horn. “We don’t want to be Panama City, we don’t want to be Destin.
“We have our heritage of beach homes,” said Gulf Drive resident and realtor Nina Horn, stating that single-family homes are what the Eastern Lake neighborhood is “about,” while observing that some of the beach homes are “way too big.” Low density and a non-crowded beach experience are what most people come to the area to enjoy, Horn told the commissioners. “We really ask you to please consider to say no to this,” she concluded.
San Roy Road property owner Leah McDowell said her family’s home is a second home and that they do not rent it out. “This is about the character of the neighborhood…our neighborhood functions as a single-family neighborhood…we know each other,” McDowell said, detailing gatherings between neighbors in the community.
John R. Martin, another San Road Road homeowner, said his family had moved in 17 years ago from another beach area because they wanted to be “out in a low-density area.” “This is a very unique area…we’re in the sweet spot,” he told the commissioners.
While acknowledging that some condominiums exist on the beach near the neighborhood, he emphasized that west of Beachside Drive, the road just west of the Beachside Villas condominium, “nothing to the west of there even resembles a condominium. By allowing Azzurro west of Beachside Drive, the commissioners would have “crossed the line,” Martin argued.
Lakeview Drive homeowner Tom McGee warned that the condominium project would worsen traffic issues in the neighborhood and limit access of emergency vehicles. “This is a serious health and safety issue,” he said. McGee urged for the BCC to pursue having a right-of-way, Chivas Lane, between the Sugar Dunes and Beachwood Villas, opened up for access in order to improve traffic circulation.
BCC Chair Cecilia Jones responded that she would like public works staff to meet with McGee to discuss the latter possibility.
“We have terrible traffic problems already,” stated Karen McGee, who was next to speak. “This will add to the problem,” she said.
“We are a single-family neighborhood largely…it is not a condominium development neighborhood,” Karen McGee added.
Oyster Lake resident Jacquee Markel concurred with the Eastern Lake residents’ opinion that the condominium project would not be compatible. She said she had been lobbying for the county to purchase the subject property for as long as she could remember. She urged for denial of the condominium proposal and for the county to renew its effort to purchase the property.
“It is out of place in this neighborhood,” attorney Dunaway maintained in his argument to the commissioners, speaking of the condominium project.
Testifying for the applicant, Randy Gardner, a developer and former Walton County planning commissioner, presented his observations of the subject area. He noted that what had been, especially to the north, a “quiet family neighborhood,” had evolved going south into “more of a beach destination.”
“The area will never be what it was…it has what tourists want…there’s no way to stop it,” he stated.
In response to objections raised by Dunaway, Matthews indicated the agreement of the applicant to make two changes to the project plans. One was to lower the pool area by one story in order to ensure that the county’s 50-foot limit on construction height was not violated. The other was to move the building an additional 10 feet away further from the adjacent Warner home in order to provide for more of a buffer.
Carpenter called the applicant’s agreement to these conditions “generous,” and also suggested that another condition of approval be having public works evaluate the condition of the road prior to project construction and hold the developer responsible for any damage to it during construction. This was agreed to providing that other construction was not taking place at the same time.
“It’s very controversial. I see both sides of the issue,” said District 5 Commissioner Tony Anderson. He then moved for approval with all conditions outlined plus those recommended and set out in the staff report.
The motion was approved in a 3-1 vote, with Anderson, Jones, and District 1 Commissioner Bill Chapman voting in favor and District 4 Commissioner Sara Comander voting no. District 3 Commission Melanie Nipper was not present.
In response to a reporter’s question after the close of the hearing, Dunaway indicated that the approval would be appealed in court.
Other development projects approved at the Aug. 15 special meeting were: Beachwood Estates, a 22-lot residential subdivision to be constructed on Rachel Road, 800 feet west of Sugar Drive in Santa Rosa Beach, with plans for homes approximately 2,500 square feet in size; and Lot 16 South Walton Commerce Park, a 7,900-square-foot building that is to serve as a vodka distillery and is to be located at the northern end of Serenoa Road in South Walton Commerce Park, which is immediately east of the new Walton County Sports Park.
Approved, as well were two amendments. The first of these the Downtown Seagrove Final Order Amendment, provided for the final order to be revised in line with an amended private Memorandum of Understanding applying to the project and allowing seven existing palm trees to remain on CR-30A on the south side of the Downtown Seagrove project. Carpenter noted that the palm trees are ones native to Walton County.
The other amendment, the Old Florida Village Phase II Planned Unit (PUD) Development Amendment, provided for removal of the 54,000 square feet of neighborhood-serving commercial and retail previously approved and replacing it with 17-multi-family units and a community pool within the PUD.