Solar energy facility, other requests, clear Planning Commission, members vote to deny Hidden Highlands abandonment [PREMIUM]

A SOLAR ENERGY facility proposed for north Walton County was one of a number of agenda items taken up by the Walton County Planning Commission at its Nov. 12 meeting.

By DOTTY NIST

A controversial solar energy facility will move forward to consideration by the Walton County Board of County Commissioners (BCC) with a favorable Walton County Planning Commission vote along with other agenda items presented at the Nov. 12 meeting of the county-appointed board. A request for an abandonment in the Hidden Highlands subdivision will move forward to BCC with a motion to deny by the planning commission.

The Nov. 12 meeting was held at Freeport Commons. At the outset of the meeting, a board chair (Lee Perry) and vice chair (Tom Babcock) were elected.

Chautauqua Solar Energy Facility

        Gulf Power is the project applicant for the Chautauqua Solar Energy Facility, also referred to as a “solar farm.” It is proposed for property slightly over 867 acres in size that is located approximately three miles east of the U.S. 331 North/SR-2A intersection. The property is in a Large-Scale Agriculture future land use classification, and the zoning category is General Agriculture. It is undeveloped and has been used for farming and most recently for raising cattle.

Mac Carpenter, county planning and development services director, noted that this would be the first renewable energy facility of this kind to come to Walton County, although more are expected in the future.

Carpenter explained that the requested use is an allowable one for the land use classification and zoning district of the property. Therefore no land use classification or zoning district change is required to accompany the request.

He explained that one concern with the application has been related to compatibility with adjoining uses. He noted that the property is “on a hill” and that despite landscape buffer plantings that are incorporated into project plans, the facility will still be visible from adjoining properties.

Although the request is an allowable use, Carpenter commented, it is likely to have some impacts similar to those that an industrial use would have. Representatives of the project later voiced disagreement with this “industrial use” reference.

An earlier staff report on the proposal at Technical Review Committee (TRC) had referenced a required 150-foot-wide undisturbed buffer area included in the plans, “between the extent of the development and the property line”—and had put forth the recommendation that a 25-foot-wide planted landscape buffer should also be provided on the property in areas adjacent to surrounding homes.

The planning commission staff report listed four adjacent residential parcels for which neither a 150-foot setback nor a 25-foot landscape buffer had been shown on the plans. “It appears there is just a 25’ setback from the property line to the solar panels,” the report read. “Please revise to provide a 150’ setback with a 25’ landscape buffer adjacent to all residential property lines, not just the road frontage.”

“Additionally,” according to the report, “it appears that the 150’ setback and 25’ landscape buffer should be continued on Harrison Road to buffer the whole development parcel to the west. The same would apply to McKee Road to the west, to buffer the properties to the east.”

Allara Mills Gutcher, a professional planner representing Gulf Power, spoke about the landscaping buffers to be created, in which she said existing vegetation would be used where possible in conjunction with tree planting. She said the landscaping buffers to be created would amount to 1.45 miles of buffers.

Gutcher told the board members that the project meets all requirements of the Walton County Land Development Code and that the applicants have tried to “mitigate the visual.” She explained that there would be virtually no noise associated with the facility.

A number of neighbors of the project spoke in opposition, with some community members also speaking in support due to economic impacts, job creation, and pro-environment aspects.

Chairman Perry reminded speakers that the planning commission has a “narrow set of parameters” in reviewing projects, that of evaluating whether the requests meet the requirements of the Walton County Land Development Code (LDC) and Comprehensive Plan (CP).

Increased heat on the property from the solar panels was one of the concerns raised by citizens, along with potential loss of adjoining property value, noise and erosion concerns, and possible health impacts to neighbors. Other comments were related to the “top quality” of the land that would be the project site and the fact that the project would remove it from agricultural or cattle farming use.

There were comments that information on the type of solar panels to be used had not been provided. A project representative responded that this had not yet been determined. He assured the neighbors that the panels would be encapsulated and would have warranties.

In response to questions about possible storm damage to panels, the representative reported that Hurricane Irma had gone over 1,000 panels at one of the company’s solar facilities and that less than 50 of the panels had been damaged. When damaged, panels can either be repaired or thrown away if not if not determined to be hazardous, he said. If hazardous, they can be recycled in connection with contracts in place for the facilities, he explained.

The representative indicated willingness to work with new residential neighbors moving in, by providing buffers to their property in areas where buffers were not in the project plans.

The board members voted to recommend approval of the request based on it meeting LDC and CP requirements.

Lot 20, 22 & 23 Hidden Highlands Abandonment

Generating nearly as much community interest and concern as the solar facility was the Lot 20, 22 & 23 Hidden Highlands Abandonment request.

Presenting this request on behalf of Timothy Kreider was consultant Stephanie Manning.

The request was to abandon 33 feet of roadway and utility easement on the three lots located at the end of Spotted Dolphin Road in the Santa Rosa Beach area.

Explaining that the easement overlaps a 35-foot-wide platted preservation area, Manning said the applicant’s biggest worry is 20 acres to the north that is for sale and where 100 units have been proposed. She explained the applicant’s desire to leave the preservation area in place and not have a road constructed across it, bringing in traffic and possible safety problems at the rear of his property.

Representing neighboring property owners, attorney Gary Shipman spoke in opposition to the abandonment. He maintained that a road shown on the plat within the easement and is in place in the proposed abandonment area, a road that neighbors use to access their property.

“I use it every day,” said one of those, Jim Crawford.

Other neighbors spoke in favor of the abandonment, some saying that the small road on the easement is not a public road but is only allowed to be used by a handful of neighbors. Some said they would prefer the abandonment property to be put back into its natural condition and that they did not want a road along the back of their property.

Walton County Attorney Sidney Noyes commented that the subdivision plat is contradictory in showing a preservation area and buffer and also a 33-foot-wide access and utility easement in the same area. This may well have to be addressed, she said.

Carpenter noted that lot owners with a preservation area on their lots are required to maintain the preservation area. He stated that an easement is shown on the plat, not a road. “There is no road contemplated,” he said.

A motion to recommend denial of the abandonment request carried in a 5-1 vote, with one abstention due to a conflict.

Forman LSA Developer Agreement

The Forman LSA (large scale amendment) Developer Agreement had been approved by the BCC in April 2019, setting development controls in connection with a land use change from Conservation Residential 2:1 to Low Density Residential and Neighborhood Infill on the Forman property, 282.05 acres located at the north end of Veteran Road, north of U.S. 98 in Santa Rosa Beach.

Before the planning commission at the Nov. 12 meeting was a revised version of the developer agreement resulting from an agreement with the Walton County School District for 102 acres of the property to be sold for a school. The revised agreement removed the property and associated density from the developer agreement.

The board members voted to recommend approval of the request.

Lot 10 Seclusion Dunes Abandonment

Don Gaetz presented the Lot 10 Seclusion Dunes Abandonment, providing for the abandonment of a 33-foot-wide public access/utility easement on property located south of CR-30A at the end of Beachfront Trail in the Eastern Lake community, with five feet along the eastern property line proposed to be left unabandoned for utility use if needed.

Gaetz explained that the abandonment was being requested in order for a house planned on the lot to be situated in the middle of the lot in compliance with standard setbacks. He told the board members that the easement had been set up in case access was needed—but that the lot is in a planned unit development (PUD) with private roads, so the access issue is moot. The public has no way to get to the easement, so there is no public purpose for the easement, Gaetz added.

A motion to recommend approval of the abandonment carried with all aye votes.

Other agenda items recommended for approval

Also receiving votes to recommend approval were the following agenda items: the Henderson LSA, providing for a future land use classification change from Rural Residential/zoning district change from Rural Village to Business Park on 17 acres north of U.S. Hwy. 90 West at 25 Linda Lane; the Henderson LSA Developer Agreement, setting specific uses for the latter property, including farm equipment sales and warehouses, as required by the U.S. Air Force due to the property being within a missile training zone; the Poland LSA, providing for a future land use classification change from Rural Residential to Commercial/zoning district change from Rural Village to General Commercial on 11 acres at the corner of U.S. Hwy. 90 and Dr. Roberts Drive west of Freeport, with plans for warehouses on the property; Mack Bayou Landing, consisting of 38 single-family homes on 9.36 acres on the west side of Mack Bayou Road, approximately 1.4 miles north of U.S. 98; the South Walton Commerce Park PUD Amendment, providing for the creation of 21 commercial lots and associated infrastructure and roads/Phase II of South Walton Commerce Park on 79.14 acres located on Serenoa Road north of U.S. 98 in southeastern Walton County; the Eden’s Landing PUD Amendment #2, providing for a 7,223-square-foot reduction in commercial and addition of 15 multi-family loft units above the commercial space in the Eden’s Landing development south of Eden Garden State Park Road in Point Washington.

Continued items, county approval process

Continued to the Dec. 10 regular planning commission meeting due to a deficiency identified in the mail notification process was one agenda item, Malibu Gardens-Mariner Way Common Area Abandonment.

A request to continue to Dec. 10 another agenda item, the Hawk’s Landing Development proposal, was approved as well.

Planning commission decisions on amendments and land use items are provided as recommendations to the Walton County Board of County Commissioners, which is responsible for final determinations on these items in public session.