By DOTTY NIST
In order to obtain public input from all areas of the county on the proposed mobility plan and fee, the Walton County Board of County Commissioners (BCC) recently voted not to close the first reading of the ordinance—but to continue the reading at sessions to be held in various locations countywide. Locations are to include Freeport, DeFuniak Springs, and Paxton.
The mobility plan is aimed at transitioning Walton County’s transportation system from one based on automobiles to a multimodal transportation system. The mobility fee program proposed in connection with the plan would replace the current proportionate fair share program for mitigation of transportation impacts associated with new development. Able to be used in a more flexible manner than proportionate fair share fees, mobility fees could fund not only needed roadway improvements but multimodal projects as well.
The mobility plan lists over 200 recommended roadway and multimodal transportation projects in all areas of the county.
After a number of workshops and meetings, along with presentation of information on the mobility plan and fee in community settings, the BCC recently began final hearings on the ordinance that would implement the plan and fee. This was on April 27 at the South Walton Annex with the opening of the first reading of the ordinance.
Mac Carpenter, county planning and development services director, began the April 27 reading/hearing by observing the tremendous amount of work that had gone into the plan and fee and by noting that this would be the first time (if approved) for the county to have a comprehensive transportation plan “for the whole county.”
Carpenter described the plan as one with a “focus on moving people as opposed to moving cars.”
He noted that the plan would not expire but would ideally be “updated on an annual basis.”
Other advantages of the plan pointed out by Carpenter were that it would assist staff with seeking grant funding and that it would help the public know about planned projects. He also explained that having the plan would help Walton County compete for state and federal funding for projects.
Carpenter turned to two projects contained in the plan that he described as “lightning rods.” These were the proposed paved, two-lane road through Point Washington State Forest and the SR-81 connector/extension, which, Carpenter observed, go through environmentally sensitive lands. Although saying that he thought the forest road was “important,” Carpenter suggested removing these roads from the mobility plan and putting them into the needs plan, which he described as a “wish list” for projects that could be considered for addition in the future, out to 2040.
However the BCC did not vote to remove the two roads from the mobility plan.
Another suggestion by Carpenter was to designate CR-30A as a “constrained facility” in order for the county road to be exempt from county code requirements for right-of-way protection zone. He explained that this would be to maintain the character of CR-30A by relieving staff from having to apply rules for the right-of-way to be a certain width. Carpenter noted that the right-of-way for CR-30A ranges from as much as 100-110 feet down to as little as 60 feet in some places.
The BCC did not take any action on this suggestion either. District 5 Commissioner Tony Anderson voiced concern that the constrained facility designation would put properties out of compliance. He said he was also concerned about the suggestions for the BCC to “vote today” when he and many citizens still had a lot of questions about the plan that were yet to be answered.
“I think we need to tap the brakes a bit,” Anderson said.
Clay Adkinson, acting county attorney, told the commissioners that in order for designating CR-30A as a constrained facility to be considered, there would have to be notice that the BCC would be taking this up in a public hearing.
Anderson said he agreed.
A suggestion by District 2 Commissioner Danny Glidewell was to have discussions on the mobility plan in Freeport, DeFuniak Springs, and Paxton. He said the plan had not yet been presented in Paxton.
Carpenter said county staff would be “very happy to make those efforts.”
In view of this, Adkinson recommended that the BCC consider a motion to continue the first reading of the ordinance to be held in sessions at these locations and to take public comment from members of the public in attendance.
Glidewell moved to do so, and his motion was approved with all aye votes of the four commissioners in attendance.
Nine members of the public addressed the commissioners with comments.
The first to speak, attorney Gary Shipman, said he was speaking for the Walton County Small Business Association (WCSBA) and also for himself personally. Shipman spoke in favor of a sales tax rather than a mobility fee to pay for transportation projects. He pointed out that when a sales tax was used to obtain funds for the local match on the four-laning of the U.S. 331 bay bridge, tourists had ended up paying 65 to 75 percent.
Shipman also indicated that he shared the concern previously expressed about the constrained facility designation for CR-30A.
He urged, as well, for the county to monitor bills currently in the legislature that, if approved, could impact the mobility plan and fee.
Glidewell asked Adkinson if funds from a mobility fee would be required to be used for a project or projects in the zone where collected. (The plan proposes, south, north central and northern zones.) He also asked what the restrictions would be with a sales tax.
Adkinson responded that impact fees such as the mobility fee are “incredibly limiting” because of requirements to use funds in the areas where collected, and that there can be legal challenges in connection with zones where the funds are used. With a sales tax, he continued, the only restrictions for areas where the funds could be used would be restrictions put in place by the county. He also agreed that payment of the sales tax would be spread out among tourists.
Will Stokes, an attorney representing the Nokuse privately-owned conservation property, thanked the planners for having confirmed that, in contrast with an earlier draft of the mobility plan, that the current draft does not call for SR-81 to be rerouted or expanded on his clients’ property which is subject to conservation easements held by the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP).
Stokes spoke in support of removing the proposed SR-81 connector road from the mobility plan as Carpenter had suggested and, in fact, removing it from “any plan.”
While crediting the planners for all their efforts with the plan, Camp Creek Lake resident Bob Brooke voiced opposition to removing the forest road from the mobility plan, saying that the “big gap” within which there is no north-south road between CR-30A and U.S. 98 needs to be addressed. He was also critical of the plan’s proposals for lanes devoted to different modes of travel along CR-30A that would vary section by section, saying that these could actually reduce mobility and should be looked at more closely.
Representing the local Beach to Bay Connection and Let It Be Forest conservation nonprofit organizations, Celeste Cobena presented the commissioners with letters from federal and state regulatory agencies in opposition to the proposed road through Point Washington State Forest. She urged the BCC to remove all infrastructure in the mobility plan that would go on conservation lands.
“They were bought for preservation and passive recreation,” Cobena said of the conservation lands.
She urged for the forest road and the SR-81 extension to not just be switched to another plan but entirely removed from consideration. “They need to go away,” Cobena emphasized.
Among other comments, south Walton County resident Barbara Morano spoke in favor of the mobility fee and against a sales tax to fund the transportation projects, saying that the mobility fee was “fair.” With a sales tax, Morano told the commissioners, “you’re letting the developers off the hook.”
She also provided a position statement on behalf of the South Walton Community Council (SWCC) stating that a “high burden must be met” before the county considers conservation land for transportation use.
Grayton Beach resident Bonnie McQuiston also urged for the forest road to be taken out of the plan, saying that she had calculated that 3.25 miles is the longest distance anyone has to go along CR-30A “to get to a connector road.” She questioned why, then, would the county even consider attempting to put a road through the forest.
Megan Harrison, president and CEO of the Walton Area Chamber of Commerce, spoke in favor of moving the first reading of the ordinance into the additional communities. She also called for the creation of a stakeholder group to provide feedback on the greatest needs for the mobility plan.
County resident Anita Page asked for the forest road and all proposed roads and transportation trails in the plan to be removed from conservation lands, which she commented, have a different purpose than moving people.
Conservation land, she said, “should not be used for transportation corridors.”
Jeff Talbert, a county resident who is serving as project coordinator and biologist for an $8 million wetland restoration project at Deer Lake State Park, was in agreement with Page. He also invited the officials to come to the park and see the project for themselves.
Members of the public who were waiting to address the BCC via ZOOM were not heard at the April 27 meeting, which had run for over five hours, and were requested to provide their comments at one of the upcoming sessions.
The meeting concluded with mobility project consultant Jonathan Paul speaking on the advantages of the mobility plan and fee, summarizing how the plan and fee would work, and describing what is proposed in the mobility plan along the Scenic Gulf Drive and CR-30A roadways.
Paul said there is currently no needs plan set up for the southern zone of the plan but that such a plan could be created.
The additional sessions for continuation of the first reading of the mobility plan and fee ordinance to be held in Freeport, DeFuniak Springs and Paxton had not been scheduled as of press time. Information on these meetings will be forthcoming.
Information on the mobility plan is available online on the Walton County website at www.co.walton.fl.us/1268/Walton-County-Mobility-Plan—Proposed