By DOTTY NIST
In a move aimed at relieving overcrowding of Walton County Planning and Development Services, consolidating the department, and providing for additional services to the public, Walton County officials recently voted to purchase 24 office units in Freeport. County commissioners have also directed staff to negotiate for the purchase of six parcels located north of the bay for public recreation.
The decisions took place at the March 28 Walton County Board of County Commissioners (BCC) regular meeting at the Walton County Courthouse.
Planning department relocation to Freeport
In the wake of months of discussion, the BCC voted unanimously to purchase the office units, located at Freeport Business Park along SR-20, from Freeport Center, L.L.C., at a negotiated price of $1.92 million. This will result in Walton County owning all but five units of the business park.
Seller Freeport Center, L.L.C.’s appraisal for the 24 units had come in at $2.335 million, and two appraisals obtained by Walton County had come in at $1.725 million and $1.92 million.
Stan Sunday, deputy administrator for the county, had negotiated the price approved by the BCC on March 28.
The acquisition of the 24 units is to provide for the planning department to be consolidated in one location as recommended by a recent Florida Auditor General’s audit of the department. (Currently planning staff is divided between DeFuniak Springs and the South Walton Annex.)The consolidation is also aimed at improving efficiency and reducing turnaround time for applications.
A number of the commissioners have called for the planning department to continue to have a person in place at both current locations to accept applications. Submitting applications to planning is also expected to be possible soon via kiosk and online with new CitizenServe software.
The relocation of planning to the Freeport units will free up additional space as needed for constitutional officers such as Walton County Clerk of Courts and the Walton County Tax Collector. One or more of the constitutional officers may also have a presence at the new Freeport property.
Walton County Tax Collector Rhonda Skipper was present at the March 28 BCC meeting to thank the BCC for “being proactive” in obtaining this additional office space.
The BCC has discussed that it has been difficult to provide additional services to the public with the currently overcrowded situation.
A total of 119 parking spaces is available at the business center. The units will have to be readied with cubicles before they are ready for use by the county, work that is expected to cost $250,000 to $500,000 depending on whether the work is done by county labor or contracted out.
In long-range plans for Walton County is an additional office building at the South Walton Governmental and Educational Center in the vicinity of the South Walton Annex which would have the ability to house planning in one location. However, it has been estimated that it could take five years or longer to put such a more-permanent solution in place.
Parcels for recreation on Choctawhatchee Bay north shore
In other north-of-the-bay business at the March 28 meeting, Walton County Administrator Larry Jones presented information as requested by the BCC on six parcels on the north shore of the Choctawhatchee Bay that could be acquired for public recreation.
The funding source would be approximately $6.2 million in excess funds collected in connection with the now-discontinued half-cent sales tax imposed to pay off the loan on the local match for the U.S. 331 bay bridge expansion project. The use of these funds is required to be in connection with the bridge and associated Pilcher Park project and public recreational activity in the vicinity.
The parcels included the old bait shop property just north of the bridge and on the east side of U.S. 331 and five parcels located on Bay Grove Road.
Uses discussed for the parcels including the launching of boats and kayaks, park use, and swimming areas, especially for children.
Asking prices for the six parcels totaled $4.250 million, with asking prices well above appraisal values.
“These prices are outrageous,” DeFuniak Springs resident J.B. Hillard observed at the meeting, addressing the commissioners. However, he added that the BCC was “doing the right thing” in looking at acquiring the parcels and expressed his appreciation.
The BCC unanimously approved a motion by District 5 Commissioner Tony Anderson to direct staff to negotiate for the purchase of all the parcels, with the goal of getting the asking prices as close as possible to appraisal values.
The BCC also viewed a 26-item list of proposed expenditures for the excess bridge funds that had been created through input at public workshops. Sunday observed that many of the proposed items would be dependent on the acquisition of the previously-discussed parcels.
The commissioners discussed a weather station that prior to the bridge project had been in place on the bridge. District 4 Commissioner Sara Comander spoke to the need for a state-of-the-art weather station on the bridge.
A motion was approved to have staff research the cost for a number of items, among those the weather station and for the park a security system, fish cleaning station and ice machine.