Walton County Planning Commission votes against two amendments, approves five other requests  

THE WALTON COUNTY Planning Commission moves through agenda items at the May 11 regular meeting. Two proposed amendments, the Hicks Large Scale Amendment and the Cassine Station Planned Unit Development (PUD) Amendment, got thumbs down from the Walton County Planning Commission, with five other proposals clearing their hearings by the county board with favorable votes. (Photo by Dotty Nist)

Two proposed amendments, the Hicks Large Scale Amendment and the Cassine Station Planned Unit Development (PUD) Amendment, got thumbs down from the Walton County Planning Commission, with five other proposals clearing their hearings by the county board with favorable votes.
The decisions took place at the Walton County Planning Commission’s May 11 regular meeting at the South Walton Annex.

Hicks Large Scale Amendment
The planning commissioners were presented with a request from Thomas Hicks in connection with a 368+-acre property classified as Estate Residential and located approximately 3.5 miles east of the U.S. 331/Rock Hill Road intersection, on the north side of Rock Hill Road. According to a staff report for the request, “The property is currently being utilized as a sand pit which is a non-conforming use in Estate Residential. The applicant desires to continue operating as a sand pit and allow for some limited sorting of materials and receipt of land clearing debris.”
The request was to change the northern 198+-acre portion of the property from Estate Residential to Industrial, with the remainder of the property to remain Estate Residential.
Allowable uses within the Industrial land use category, according to the Walton County Comprehensive Plan, include: “heavy, medium and light intensity industrial uses: manufacturing, fabricating or milling, warehousing, storage, salvage yards, and other substantially similar uses industrial uses.”
Bob Baronti of Walton County Planning and Development Services introduced the request, observing that the subject property is a former county borrow pit. He explained that the southern 173+ acres remaining Estate Residential would buffer the sand pit area from Rock Hill Road.
In late 2012, Hicks had requested a land use change on the same northern portion of the property from Estate Residential to Extractive Use (mining/borrow pit use). That request had been denied in a 4-1 vote by the Walton County Board of County Commissioners (BCC) in January 2013.
While the staff report listed code enforcement cases associated with the property dated 2008 and 2010, the report stated that there were “currently no open cases on the property as of April 17, 2017.”
Dean Burgis, an engineer representing Hicks, commented that the sand pit was not currently being excavated per a consent order. He said the applicant had thought this would be a good time to request the “proper designation” for the northern portion, which is and has been a sand pit and was formerly used in that manner when under county ownership. Burgis explained that plans were for Hicks’ children to build homes along the portion bordering Rock Hill Road.
Asked about portions of the property bordering Nokuse Plantation, Burgis confirmed that this is conservation land and said that buffers would be required on Hicks’ property in those sections. The applicant would adhere to those buffer requirements, Burgis stated. Asked about the width of the buffers, he said he thought they would be 75 feet.
“We are opposed to this land use change,” said Matthew Aresco, director of Nokuse Plantation.
Aresco cautioned that the land use change being proposed was even more intensive than the one proposed in 2013. He told the planning commissioners that it would create incompatibility with the Nokuse conservation land, which borders the property along one mile on the east side and four-tenths mile on the west side.
This land is protected in perpetuity through conservation easements purchased by the state, Aresco noted. He indicated that the conservation land contains very sensitive natural communities and that activities have included extensive restoration to native flora, including longleaf pine.
Aresco also called the request “vague.” “We just don’t know what they’re planning other than sand extraction,” he said.
Planning Commission Chairman Teddy Stewart asked if a 75-foot buffer would not be sufficient. Aresco responded that a 500-foot buffer would be a minimum if the request (which he opposed) were approved.
The planning commissioners heard from seven residents and property owners in the vicinity of the subject property, all either in opposition or expressing concern about the proposal.
High Lonesome Road resident Janice Laird was worried that the land use change could open the door to activities with negative impacts such as a landfill for hazardous waste. She was concerned about existing noise coming from the property and about truck traffic from pits along Rock Hill Road becoming increasingly dangerous for residential traffic.
To give “carte blanche” for a landfill would be “ridiculous,” commented Rock Hill Road resident Jillian Wolfe, warning that a landfill could contaminate the aquifer. “That’s what’s at stake, our water, our peace of mind,” she said.
Hicks countered that he was just asking for something “to be right,” and to be approved for “what my neighbors got.” He credited his previous request being turned down to his having an attorney representing him that the BCC did not like.
Hicks agreed that the truck traffic could be “scary” but said of Rock Hill Road, “It’s the only place we can get dirt.” Commenting on a truck versus car accident referenced by some of the speakers that had resulted in a fatality, Hicks said it had been the result of one of his trucks meeting a car in the truck’s lane.
“Dirt pits are necessary to Walton County,” Burgis argued. He said it is often difficult to obtain fill dirt in Walton County and that contractors must then go to Panama City to obtain it.
Burgis reminded the planning commissioners that the land use change would be the “first step” and not the “authority to build,” which would require an extensive process.
Planning Commissioner Danny Glidewell echoed one of the opposing speakers’ comments that the change from Estate Residential to Industrial would be “a pretty big jump.” Regarding residents who had bought their property with the assurance of this property being Estate Residential, he asked, “How do we protect them?”
Burgis countered that the dirt pit use had existed on the property going back 35 to 40 years. “It’s with this in mind that we make this request,” he said.
Stewart observed that he was aware that permitting would be needed for future activity in connection with the land use change—but brought up the issue of the conservation land and Aresco’s statement that a 75-foot buffer would be insufficient.
Glidewell observed that the residents had invested “their life savings in their homes,” and also noted that the water supply for the south end comes from wells in the vicinity of this property.
He motioned for denial, and the motion was approved with all aye votes with the exception of one recusal. Planning Commissioner Lee Perry recused/abstained from voting due to a business conflict.

Cassine Station PUD Amendment

The Cassine Station Planned Unit Development (PUD) Amendment proposal was a request by Nissim Afuta to convert office space to 1,170 square feet of sit-down restaurant space in the PUD. The subject building is along CR-30A in Seagrove at the front of the Cassine property, which includes several residential developments.
Baronti explained that there had been code issues with the property for years. The original PUD, he explained, had provided for the front building to be used as a sales office for homes and condominiums adjacent and to the north. Later a request for ice cream to be sold in the building was approved, which “morphed into” pizza sales, he noted. The building is now a full-service Mexican restaurant, he reported.
Baronti added that at one point there had been an active code enforcement case associated with a building under the same ownership to the east of the subject building where rental golf carts were stored and signage violations were charged. Walton County Code Enforcement has tried to work with this property for a number of years, he explained.
Baronti said the owner had now done all that had been asked by the county— and that in spite of violations associated with the property, those were not deemed active pending the request being considered. With approval of the request as presented, the violations would “go away,” he said.
Asked how long violations had been present, Baronti estimated eight years.
Mac Carpenter, Walton County planning and development services director, explained that the use of the building for office and take-out food sales had been approved by the county through a Certificate of Land Use Compliance (CLUC). If the current request were denied, the use would have to revert to that from the existing sit-down restaurant use, he said, or to office use if desired by the owner. He detailed a plan to remedy parking violations that was said to “protect” the 33 spaces set aside for residential parking.
Stewart expressed concern that stakeholders, specifically neighbors, had not been provided with opportunity for input in connection with the plan—and discomfort about considering a PUD amendment in order to accommodate an existing non-complying use. He said he could see on paper that the residential parking spaces were protected but wondered who would be present to see that residents would have parking for their homes.
Robert McGill, an attorney representing Cassine homeowners, spoke in opposition to the request. He argued that the use approved along with the PUD in the early 2000s had been office use. Any later use varying from that represented a violation, and the CLUC issued by the county didn’t “make it right,” he contended.
To change the use would require a compatibility analysis, and “there isn’t one,” McGill told the planning commissioners. He also disagreed with the parking calculation provided in the proposed plan.
McGill emphasized the land use classification of the property, Residential Preservation, and pointed out that its intent is “to protect the integrity of residential subdivisions.”
Several neighboring residents and homeowners also spoke in opposition. Linda Kuhns, president of the homeowners’ association for Cassine Village, said she represented 72 homeowners. She contended that the parking would not be adequate and argued that residents should have been involved with the creation of any proposed plan.
Kuhns complained that there was a lack of concern for the subdivision streets, which are private and maintained by residents. Residents deal with daily negative impacts in connection with the business, including blocking of roads by delivery trucks, rental golf carts sticking out into the road, and garbage from the restaurant sitting out, she complained. The restaurant use “is not what we bargained for,” she said, speaking of residents.
“It gets old, I can tell you that, ” Kuhns said.
“It’s a serious problem,” agreed resident Charles Gibbs.
A motion for denial of the request was approved with all aye votes with the exception of one recusal. Planning Commissioner John Roberts recused/abstained from voting due to a conflict.

Proposals approved

In other action at the May 11 meeting, the following proposals received favorable votes: 4MG Reclaim Storage Tank Small Scale Amendment, submitted by Regional Utilities to amend the land use classification of 4.25 acres on the east side of U.S. 331, six-tenths mile from the U.S. 98 intersection, from Conservation to Public Facilities, in order to provide for the placement of two reclaimed water storage tanks; Miramar Inn and Suites, a 125-unit hotel with pool amenity to be constructed on a 3.26-acre site on the south side of U.S. 98, west of Ellis Road and east of Driftwood Road in Miramar Beach; Lot 2, Coastal Business Center, a 7,000-square-foot warehouse building to be constructed on 0.52 acres on the north side of Commercial Parkway, east of Goldsby Road in Santa Rosa Beach; Jamira Commercial, a 2,370-square-foot retail/restaurant development to be developed on the north side of Scenic Gulf Drive on a 0.52-acre site across from Costa del Sol in Miramar Beach, consisting of three kiosk buildings with eight individual units to serve pedestrian and bicycle traffic; and Lots 18, 19, and 20 South Walton Commerce Park, consisting of 18,187 square feet of office/warehouse on a 1.447-acre site at the dead end of Serenoa Road on the south side, in southeastern Walton County.

Fox Lake Residential, other proposals continued

The Fox Lake Residential proposal was continued to the June 8 planning commissioner regular meeting due to an issue reported by staff of more than 50 percent of residents within 300 feet not having received notification of the proposal. It was noted that this had not been the fault of the applicant but of the post office.
Also continued to the June 8 meeting were The Crossings Phase 3 Large Scale Amendment and the Chandler Large Scale Amendment in order to allow for more dialog between the applicants and the community.
Continued, as well, to June 8 was the Piper’s Place development proposal.

June 12 workshop set
In addition, the planning commissioners approved the holding of a 5 p.m. June 12 workshop at the South Walton Annex to hear and consider proposed revisions to be brought forward by staff in connection with the current effort to bring the Walton County Comprehensive Plan and Land Development Code into compliance with one another.
Decisions on agenda items taken up by the planning commission are provided as recommendations to the BCC, which has final responsibility for determinations on these items in public session.

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