By DOTTY NIST
The Walton County Board of County Commissioners (BCC) has opted to put their consideration of having all quasi-judicial matters heard by a special magistrate on hold pending an ongoing Walton County Comprehensive Plan and Land Development Code update effort.
Direction to staff to put the issue “on hold” pending the update took place at the May 23 regular BCC meeting at the Walton County Courthouse.
Since being brought forward in January, the issue has been a contentious one even among BCC members, and the idea of using a special magistrate for these hearings has been mostly unpopular among the public.
In April, per Jan. 24 direction by the BCC, Walton County’s legal counsel brought before the commissioners a draft ordinance that, if approved would provide for a special magistrate to conduct all the county’s quasi-judicial hearings, including those now held by the BCC, the Planning Commission, the Code Enforcement Board (CEB) and the Zoning Board of Adjustments, and would eliminate the latter two boards to be replaced by the magistrate.
Aside from the BCC, the other boards that would be affected by the ordinance consist of citizen volunteers appointed by the commissioners.
The proposed measure would be required to undergo the county’s ordinance approval process, beginning with its being presented to the planning commission for a recommendation. However, the BCC did not direct staff to begin that process when the draft ordinance was presented to them in April.
At the May 23 BCC meeting, Sidney Noyes asked the commissioners for direction and requested that they consider holding off on the ordinance at least until completion of the ongoing update process for the Walton County Comprehensive Plan (CP) and Land Development Code.
Professional consultants with the Matrix Design Group have been enlisted for the effort in partnership with Walton County Planning and Development Services. It is aimed at identifying revisions to “clean up” the documents, clear up inconsistencies, and bring the CP and LDC into compliance with one another.
Noyes suggested that once the update effort is completed, some commissioners might have different feelings regarding the use of a special magistrate.
County Commission Chair Cecilia Jones responded that she thought this would be a good idea, adding that she thought the volunteer boards were working well and appreciated the work of the volunteer board members. She said her goal in looking at the change to a special magistrate had been to “get education,” as many counties have made the change to special magistrates or hearing officers.
Jones added that she would feel “comfortable” if the county were able to “mesh” the CP and LDC so that, if the county decided to go to the use of a special magistrate in the future, the magistrate would be able to make “clear-cut” decisions based on the two documents.
Thomas Stein, Walton County Code Enforcement Board chairman and a CEB member for 23 years since that board’s inception, came forward to comment. He recalled that he had addressed the BCC several years ago when the same issue had been under consideration. (This had been a proposal to replace the CEB with a special magistrate.)
“I don’t know why it keeps coming up,” Stein said. “It seems that the only support to have the magistrate is coming from the legal community, because the public at large seems in favor of having a board of peers to address these matters.”
District 1 Commissioner Bill Chapman commented that he had not changed his mind on the matter from what he had indicated in previous discussion. He said that he would favor giving Matrix a chance to clean up the documents, “give the process an opportunity to work,” under the current system, and “give it a fair shake.”
“So, we can hopefully minimize a lot of the issues that come up here, whether it’s an attorney or it’s a citizen just trying to build a house or develop two or three lots,” Chapman added.
“I agree,” said District 3 Commissioner Melanie Nipper.
District 4 Commissioner Sara Comander did not comment but had previously stated that she did not support going to a special magistrate for the quasi-judicial hearings.
Observing that everyone was looking at him, District 5 Commissioner Tony Anderson agreed that he would have no problem with waiting for the ongoing CP/LDC update effort to be completed as had been discussed. He said he thought this “clean-up” process was the most important thing the county had to do.
Several public workshops have been held in connection with the CP update process. The next of these is scheduled for 6 p.m. on June 5 at the South Walton Annex. Information on the CP update procedure is available online at www.waltoncountyplanupdate.com.
The Walton County Planning Commission is also scheduled to review proposed revisions brought forward by staff in connection with the update effort at a public workshop beginning at 5 p.m. on June 12 at the South Walton Annex.