By DOTTY NIST
Picnic tables, bathrooms, parking, and later piers, a playground, kayak and boat launches are envisioned for bayfront property acquired by Walton County this past fall on Bay Grove Road, on the west side of U.S. 331 and just north of the Clyde B. Wells Bridge.
The property totals slightly less than 4.5 acres. While it had remained mostly undeveloped, part of the property along U.S. 331 was used as commercial in former years, including a small gas station.
At the Nov. 28 regular Walton County Board of County Commissioners (BCC) meeting at the Walton County Courthouse, the officials discussed plans for the new park, which is unnamed at this time, and tentatively approved a conceptual plan for the park.
The plan is not set in stone but was indicated to be a starting point for workshops and public input to get ideas from the community on any minor changes to the plan that they would suggest.
At the Nov. 28 meeting, Chance Powell, county public works engineer, addressed the commissioners for direction on getting started with engineering, design and permitting for the boat basin for the property, work that is expected to be a lengthy process.
Powell noted that public works had received input from design professionals regarding the park.
Referring to some input of this nature that had been received from an architectural firm in connection with a proposed public-private partnership, Chapman said he thought those plans had been “too busy” and would put “too much” on the property.
“There are a lot of beautiful shade trees there,” Chapman noted, also referring to some of the trees as “heritage oaks.” He urged for minimizing impacts on those trees with construction of the public park on the property.
District 2 Commissioner Cecilia Jones suggested getting parking established on the property before putting a fence up.
District 4 Commissioner Sara Comander said of the park property, “It is so beautiful, it just takes my breath away.”
She observed that the county has a number of parks with ball fields and other recreational facilities. “This is an area,” Comander said of the bayfront property, “that I think we should keep as simple, as close to nature as possible.”
“This is an opportunity to showcase how beautiful the bay can be;” she said, adding, “That’s just my two cents.”
Chapman commented that, while providing access to the park off U.S. 331 had been discussed, he was of the opinion that this would cause problems due to the absence of a turn lane and the high speed of vehicles traveling on the highway. Instead he suggested a safety barrier between the park and the highway and utilization of two accesses off Bay Grove Road as shown in the conceptual plan.
Chapman suggested tentative approval of the conceptual plan, scheduling at least two workshops in the Freeport area, and authorizing staff to move forward with engineering, design and permitting for the “water area and boat ramp.” Jones asked that suggestions for a name for the park be taken at the workshop along with other input.
There was a motion by District 5 Commission Tony Anderson to proceed in this manner. The motion was approved unanimously.
Also approved at the meeting was an agreement with the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) providing DEP with access to the park property to assess any clean-up and rehabilitation required in connection with previous use of the site where the gas station had been located.
To fund purchase and improvements to the Bay Grove Road property, the BCC had voted to move $5.3 million forward from surplus funds collected from the previous half-cent tax that had been approved in a referendum in order to pay the local match on the U.S. 331 bridge four-laning project. (The tax has since been discontinued.) $1.2 million has currently been budgeted for improvements on the property. According to Walton County Administrator Larry Jones, this is an existing process on the property that has been ongoing.
Information on the workshops will be forthcoming.