Officials take action on South Walton Sports Park, discuss other park and recreation issues

Walton County commissioners recently approved a revised master plan for the South Walton Sports Park and discussed the possibility of a public swimming pool south of the bay and acquisition of the Fox Lake property for conservation and passive recreation.
The action and discussion took place at the Oct. 11 Walton County Board of County Commissioners (BCC) regular meeting at the South Walton Annex.
The South Walton Sports Park has been an ongoing project for approximately 2 1/2 years with no construction yet started for the complex, although access infrastructure has been completed. The location is 34 acres on the north side of U.S. 98 about two miles east of Emerald Coast Middle School. There is a $6.2 million budget for the facility.

NEWLY-APPROVED master plan for the South Walton Sports Park.
    NEWLY-APPROVED master plan for the South Walton Sports Park.

In July 2015, the BCC had approved a preliminary master plan for the sports park. That plan provided for a three-field baseball complex with batting cages and a restroom/concession building, three multi-use fields for football, soccer and lacrosse, space for festivals and concerts with a concrete area for a portable stage, parking areas, a perimeter walking trail, and passive areas for picnicking and relaxation. Other features, including a basketball court, outdoor sand volleyball court, four tennis courts, a pickleball court, and a playground, possibly with a shallow-water play area, were also tentatively included depending on funding.
According to information presented at the Oct. 11 BCC meeting, after approval of the preliminary master plan, the design firm for the project had realized they had miscalculated stormwater retention need and had to revise the plans to expand the retention ponds. Unfortunately, the changes resulted in removal of the majority of the amenities for the park and increased the project budget by approximately $1.5 million.
In August, Rick Wilson, Walton County special projects coordinator, had announced that a solution for the stormwater issues has been formulated through county engineering staff working with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers—and that permission has been obtained to proceed with the design, which would reduce cost and free up space for some of the amenities to be included again. Wilson said the miscalculation had resulted in a delay of about a year in the project, allowing for staff to “fine tune” park needs and apply for grants in connection with the facility.
The revised master plan presented at the Oct. 11 meeting included baseball and soccer fields, tennis courts, restrooms and concessions, playgrounds, a water feature, parking, a walking trail loop, and other amenities.
Presenting the plans to the BCC at the meeting, Rick Wilson indicated that some of the elements, among those the water feature, a miracle field and boundless playground, were dependent on grant funds applied for being received. The latter two features and special stations planned along the walking trail would be for the benefit of special needs/unique abilities individuals.
Wilson reported that, through arrangements for shared parking with the adjacent school district property, the parking area for the complex had been reduced. He added that the baseball field had been reduced from 275 feet to 225 feet, as there had been a determination that the additional 50 feet would not be needed. Later he added that the retention area on the west side of the property had been reduced through working with adjacent landowner the St. Joe Company.
District 1 Commissioner Bill Chapman urged for the special needs/unique abilities features to be incorporated as part of the other park amenities rather than located separately. Wilson pledged to address that concern.
District 5 Commissioner Cindy Meadows brought up the idea of moving some of the stormwater features under the parking area in order to free up space for additional construction, possibly an Olympic-size pool to be shared with the adjacent school district property, for use by all school students in addition to the public.
Currently there is no public pool south of the bay.
“I think now’s the time to look at it,” Meadows said.
However, her motion to for a look at the alternative was not seconded, and Chapman then moved to approve the revised master plan as presented. There was a second from District 2 Commissioner Cecilia Jones, and the motion was approved 4-1, with Meadows voting no.
Wilson indicated that he would provide the approved plans to the engineering firm for the project and that bid request documents for project construction would be developed.
Later Meadows again brought up the need for a swimming complex south of the bay. She proposed and motioned for putting up to $550,000 in District 5 recreational plat fees toward design and construction of such a facility “at a location to be determined.”
Although that motion did not receive a second, Walton County BCC Chair Sara Comander commented that the project would certainly be a worthwhile one to look at later on. She was of the opinion, however, that before moving forward to encumber funds, additional information should be obtained and provided to the BCC. She suggested asking staff to get in contact with Frank Brown Park in Panama City Beach, which offers an aquatic center, for information.
Another park and recreation-related possibility brought up by Meadows was that of the county acquiring the undeveloped 29-acre”Fox Lake” property for purposes of vegetative preservation and passive park use, to be funded from the existing $3.3 million in the Preservation Fund account and other available funds as needed.
In June, 17 duplex buildings with 34 units and 76 single-family homes had been proposed for the four “Fox Lake” parcels, which are located north and east of the Santa Rosa Golf and Beach Club golf course in Dune Allen. The development proposal had failed due to access issues together with the BCC’s denial of abandonments requested by the applicant of access and utility easements.
Meadows suggested that, among other benefits, the county acquisition would alleviate drainage and access issues in the surrounding area.
Chapman seconded her motion for discussion. He discussed his hopes to use approximately $540,000 from the Preservation Fund for a paddle trail project that he said he had been working on for over a year. He said he had sought RESTORE Act funds for the project and had been turned down.
Meadows responded that the paddle trail would be “great,” but that the original intent of the Preservation Fund had been to preserve property south of the bay to compensate for that taken up by development.
Representing Trustmark Bank, owner of the Fox Lake property, attorney Will Dunaway told the commissioners that plans were for a new site plan to be presented soon for the Fox Lake development, with the plan likely to be presented to the Walton County Planning Commission in January. However, he acknowledged that the property is for sale and being marketed at the price of $6.5 million.
Inlet Beach resident Richard Bryan voiced support for the county taking a look at the idea that Meadows had suggested for the property.
Staff were directed to bring back information on the possibility at the next BCC meeting.