By DOTTY NIST
Two large apartment projects, U.S. 331 Apartments and Encore at 331, are set to advance to final consideration by the Walton County Board of County Commissioners (BCC), in the wake of favorable votes by the Walton County Planning Commission. The first project is proposed for a south Walton County site and the other on Ramsey Branch Road north of the bay.
The planning commission took up these two projects at its July 14 regular meeting at Freeport Commons.
U.S. 331 Apartments
The U.S. 331 Apartments project consists of 260 multi-family units proposed for 29 acres (three parcels) located one mile north of U.S. 98 on the west side of U.S. 331. The access parcel is on U.S. 331 and the two other parcels are located behind South Walton High School.
The applicants are VCP Santa Rosa, L.L.C., and the property is in a Mixed Use land use area and Village Mixed Use (VMU) and Town Center One zoning districts.
Introducing the project, Stephen Schoen of Walton County Planning and Development Services noted that although there are two zoning districts for (different parts of) the property, no density transfers are being proposed or anything else that would require the project to be classified as a planned unit development (PUD).
Schoen also commented that there were no remaining reviewer comments to be addressed—and that staff had found the project to be in keeping with the Walton County Land Development Code (LDC) and substantially consistent with the Walton County Comprehensive Plan (CP).
He also explained that the applicants were proposing a “fairly substantial boardwalk” through wetlands on the property, along with extras such as public amenities and signage. Schoen added that the parking space count for the project exceeds the minimum requirement by 30 spaces.
Representing the applicants, engineer Scott Jenkins described the efforts of the applicants to “design around” natural features of the property, including catfish ponds that had been dug there in former years. He explained that the boardwalks would be elevated in order to have minimal impact on the property and that the existing ponds would be made slightly larger, which would increase floodplain capacity.
Jenkins also indicated that the boardwalks would make up a system running through the property that would interconnect with an existing boardwalk system to the west.
The trail system and public access to the system are to be required to be dedicated to the public before issuance of a development order for the project, according to the staff report.
Jenkins noted that the applicants were proposing a right turn lane into the property and would meet with the state Department of Transportation (DOT) to begin the process for the lane.
He added that the project would be designed to meet 100-year storm requirements plus an extra 20 percent volume retention.
In response to a question, Jenkins said the project meets transportation concurrency requirements.
A motion to recommend approval of the project carried with all aye votes.
Encore at 331
Due to the zoning district for the south Walton County apartment project, there was no requirement for affordable housing units. However, affordable units, also known as “income restricted,” were part of the plans for Encore at 331, the Ramsey Branch Road apartment project.
Encore at 331, would consist of 258 apartments on 22.76 acres at 34 Ramsey Branch Road (south side) and on the east side of U.S. 331 near Freeport. Twenty percent of the apartments would be income restricted.
The applicants were Graycliff Capital Partners, prospective owners of the property.
Introducing the project, Schoen explained that a draft developer agreement had previously been prepared for the project in connection with the affordable units—but that the county was now moving away from that process unless needed in favor of a land use restriction agreement process combined with deed restrictions applying to the affordable units.
He noted that, accordingly, staff expected to have a draft deed restriction for this purpose ready to accompany the project when it goes to the Walton County Board of County Commissioners (BCC) for final consideration.
Representing the applicants, engineer Robert Carroll explained that some wetlands on the property would be filled as part of the project plans. (According to the staff report, 13.03 acres of wetlands would be impacted.)
Carroll said the density reduction required due to filling wetlands would still allow for 260 units, and 258 are proposed. He explained that the applicants had obtained a conditional use approval allowing for no commercial to be provided, just the multi-family use.
He said the developers were “excited” to bring this project and more affordable housing to the area, this being their second project in the area.
In response to a question, Carroll said the first project was The Tide on Clara Avenue in Bay County, built several years ago and now fully occupied.
Also speaking on behalf of the applicants, Melissa Ward of Dunlap & Shipman responded to questions about the affordable units, of which there would be 52. She confirmed that these would be for moderate income levels of 120 percent of the average median income (AMI) for the area. Ward added that there would be a commitment to the affordable units for a 20-year period that would begin with issuance of a certificate of occupancy for the apartments.
She explained that there would be a $300-$400 difference (reduction) in rent for the affordable units versus the other apartment units.
In response to a question, Ward confirmed this project would not provide affordable housing for low or very low income renters.
After some general discussion on the affordable housing issue, Ward responded to a question about access to the development, which is to be off Ramsey Branch Road.
A motion to recommend approval of Encore at 331 also carried with all aye votes.