By DOTTY NIST
Ordinances, personnel and the purchase of property headlined a busy Walton County Board of County Commissioners (BCC) regular meeting on April 25.
The meeting was well attended and took place at the Walton County Courthouse.
Shortly after the meeting was convened, the commissioners voted quickly and unanimously to hire Charles “Mac” Carpenter, current Walton County planning manager, as Walton County planning and development services director.
Carpenter was selected from a field of over 20 applicants. He will replace Wayne Dyess, who resigned at the end of January after serving as planning and development services director since spring 2011.
Later during the course of the meeting, the commissioners took up the matter of the resignation of Walton County Attorney Mark Davis, which had been tendered on April 17.
Davis’ service in this capacity to the BCC had begun in early 2013, when he began filling in for then-Walton County Attorney Toni Craig due to her illness. Davis was appointed temporary county attorney on Jan. 22, 2013. Subsequently his contract to serve as county attorney was approved by the BCC in August 2013.
In his resignation letter, Davis commented on what an honor it had been to serve the BCC and Walton County in the position and wrote that the resignation was “purely voluntary on my part.” He indicated that his decision had been motivated by “an offer of employment that I feel is in my family’s and my best interest to accept.” He did not request severance pay but only to be paid for accrued annual and sick leave per county personnel policy.
“I would like nothing better than to say no,” District 4 Commissioner Sara Comander stated. However she observed that Davis deserved time to spend with his family “that he’s not getting now” as county attorney. She moved for acceptance of the resignation. The motion, accompanied by a number of other complimentary remarks from commissioners and a standing ovation and applause for Davis by attendees, was approved unanimously.
The resignation was accepted with an effective date of May 19, with Davis to remain in the Office of the County Attorney full-time through May 12 before taking some annual leave after that date.
In discussing future direction for the Office of the County Attorney, the BCC indicated consensus with a recommendation by Davis for three attorney positions on the office staff, including county attorney, assistant attorney, and land use attorney.
On a motion by District 5 Commissioner Tony Anderson, Sidney Noyes, current assistant county attorney, was tasked with serving as interim county attorney, with the county attorney vacancy to be publicly advertised. “She is an excellent attorney,” Anderson said of Noyes.
Purchase of beach access property in Miramar Beach
Also coming before the BCC at the April 25 meeting was a $4.2 million contract for purchase with Walton County Tourist Development Council (TDC) funds of 2.03 acres of beachfront property in Miramar Beach from Amalfi Coast Development. Walton County Tourist Development Council (TDC) Executive Director Jay Tusa presented the contract.
Located east of the Scenic Gulf Drive/Alamo Street intersection, the property has been envisioned as a regional beach access. While the original asking price had been $1.8 million, the property owners had later obtained two appraisals that came in at $5.75 million and $4.5 million, and as of April 11 the asking price had been $4.25 million. Davis confirmed that the contract price was below the value of the lowest appraisal obtained by the county.
A motion by Comander for approval of the purchase contract received a second, with discussion following.
The president and several members of the homeowners’ association for the Amalfi Coast Resort Condominium, located across Scenic Gulf Drive from the property, spoke in opposition to the purchase, as did an attorney representing the association.
“We urge you to vote against this,” Kaye Minchew, homeowners’ association president, told the commissioners. She said the homeowners had been pitted against the county in their effort to buy the property. Minchew also maintained that there are plenty of beach access points in that area and that another beach access is not needed. Amalfi Coast homeowner Joe Testa brought up concerns about parking for the access and warned that it would increase traffic congestion. Attorney John Townsend said of the price for the property, “It is certainly questionable,” and added pedestrian safety to the list of concerns.
South Walton County resident Jacquee Markel countered that, while neighbors “never want” beach accesses next to them, “we need beach accesses.”
Representing the owner of the parcel, attorney Gary Shipman stated that 39 parking spaces would be possible on the property south of Scenic Gulf Drive plus 10 golf cart parking spaces. He added that the property owner was not in negotiations with the homeowners’ association to sell the property.
In response to a question from District 3 Commissioner Melanie Nipper, Tusa confirmed that a handicapped access ramp would be possible on the property along with restroom facilities.
A vote was taken on Comander’s previous motion to approve the purchase contract, with the motion carrying by unanimous vote.
No action on half-cent sales tax
Following up on BCC direction, Davis presented a request to advertise an ordinance to set up a half-cent sales tax and authorize a referendum for a decision on the ordinance and tax by Walton County voters.
Comander noted that, if approved, the tax funds could only be used for roads, bridges and other transportation improvements. Buddy Wright of Walton County Public Works indicated that public works staff had begun listing road and bridge needs that could be funded through the tax.
District 1 Commissioner Bill Chapman recommended setting up criteria for projects to be placed on the list, determining how projects would be prioritized, and narrowing down the list based on the criteria and prioritization standards.
Davis discussed a preliminary date of Aug. 8 for the tax referendum, with the half-cent tax to become effective on Jan. 1, 2018 with approval of the tax by voters. A sunset date of five years from the effective date was also discussed.
County Commission Chair Cecilia Jones commented that she did not feel that enough information was available to move forward at this time.
The BCC took no action on the request to advertise. Wright indicated that he would meet with the commissioners individually on the matter and would bring back additional information.
Special magistrate ordinance presented
Per previous direction by the BCC, Davis presented the Special Magistrate Ordinance for review by the commissioners before scheduling public hearings for the measure in accordance with the county’s ordinance approval process. He suggested that the commissioners provide their comments individually and said he would bring the ordinance back before them at the May 9 BCC regular meeting.
If approved as currently drafted, the ordinance would provide for quasi-judicial hearings to be conducted by a hired special magistrate. Special magistrates may be attorneys or retired judges. Boards to be affected would be the BCC, Zoning Board of Adjustment (ZBA), Planning Commission, and Code Enforcement Board (CEB), with the ZBA and CEB to be eliminated and replaced by a special magistrate according to the draft language.
A number of meeting attendees took the opportunity to weigh in on the ordinance.
Jacquee Markel commented that the proposal seemed to be an attempt to consolidate powers away from the people. “I just think this is not right,” she said.
Attorney Gary Shipman spoke in favor of the ordinance. “It takes all the politics out,” he said. Someone trained to make legal decisions is needed when complex legal issues arise, he urged.
Attorney Dana Matthews agreed, saying that the county’s current system lacks efficiency and takes too long. Commissioners should not be put in the position to have to interpret the code, he commented.
Attendee Jim Bagby observed that the attorneys were the ones speaking in favor of the ordinance, while citizens are not in favor. “Follow what the people tell you you need to do,” he urged the commissioners.
South Walton county resident and business owner Dave Rauschkolb observed that one person would be making the decisions. One person of great influence may be influenced by others, he cautioned.
Miramar Beach resident Suzanne Harris said that if a magistrate were used, she hoped that in order to avoid bias the magistrate would not be a local person.
“How far do we go down the rabbit hole if the majority of this board does not want this to happen?” Comander asked. She said that at one point in the past she had been in favor of going to a special magistrate but that now that she had listened to the people, “I don’t know if I can support it.”
“Consider the impact…of telling citizens, we no longer need you,” Bob Hudson told the commissioners, speaking of the volunteers who serve on the county boards.
Hudson referenced a March 9 opinion by Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi stating, “the requirement that members of the public be ‘given a reasonable opportunity to be heard’ does not apply to code enforcement hearings conducted by a special magistrate acting ‘in a quasi-judicial capacity…'” Hudson concluded that the magistrate “would not be bound” to hear from the public,” although the commissioners might make the argument that they could override and require the taking of public comment by the magistrate.
“Please keep the public involved in Walton County government,” Hudson urged.
Bill Fletcher, who serves on the ZBA, stated his belief that seven board members have the ability to “sort out the facts” on cases and that the boards provide for a “balance” in making decisions. He said it was not clear to him why a change was needed. The system works, and the public has the ability to be heard, Fletcher observed.
Chair Jones agreed that the ZBA does work well but added that anything can be improved. “I’m for a hybrid,” she said, speaking of the use of boards for some cases and a special magistrate for others.
Anderson restated his belief that the use of a magistrate “takes the politics out.” He was in agreement on getting someone “from out of town” if the county goes to the use of a magistrate.
In response to a question, Davis stated that the county would be able to grant authority for the public to participate at special magistrate hearings. He also said he disagreed with Bondi’s opinion on the issue.
South Walton County resident Lisa Boushy encouraged the BCC to put consideration of a special magistrate on hold pending revisions being considered to bring the Walton County Comprehensive Plan (CP) and Land Development Code (LDC) into compliance, so that a magistrate would not have to refer to “unclear” documents in making decisions.
“These are amazing people,” said resident and former ZBA member Tammy Runge, speaking of volunteer board members. She added that these citizens “do a great job.” Runge told the commissioners that citizen board members bring “common sense” to decisions that an attorney would not.
Randy Gardner, who served as a planning commission member for seven years, spoke in favor of the use of a special magistrate being considered. He commented that there should not be concern about the public being heard at special magistrate hearings, as the draft ordinance specifies that quasi-judicial items are to be considered at “public hearings.”
There was no action on the proposed ordinance at the April 25 meeting. Upon a decision to move forward with the ordinance, the next step will be for it to undergo review by the planning commission prior to coming back before the BCC for final consideration.