By DOTTY NIST
Walton County – There will be additional delay with a procedure that will be an important factor for future development at Sandestin Resort, due to Sandestin Investments’ decision to withdraw its Notice of Proposed Change (NOPC) application on Sept. 9.
The application had been submitted to the county in September 2015.
The NOPC withdrawal took place at the South Walton Annex at a Walton County Board of County Commissioners (BCC) hearing on the NOPC request, with representatives of parties affected by the application present at the BCC quasi-judicial hearing, along with county staff and their legal counsel. The applicant, Sandestin Resort owner Tom Becnel of Sandestin Investments, was present with his attorney Dana Matthews.
In June 2014, the BCC had found the Sandestin Development of Regional Impact (DRI) not in substantial compliance with its development order. It had been directed at that time that further development at Sandestin would first require an NOPC procedure. Subsequent consultation with the state Department of Economic Opportunity (DEO) had clarified that this requirement would not apply to the entire Sandestin DRI but just to the property owned by Sandestin Investments, the developer found out of compliance.
The Sandestin Investments NOPC application had come before the Walton County Planning Commission at Oct. 27 and Nov. 12, 2015, public hearings. The specific request by the applicant had been for a change to the previously-approved development order for the Sandestin DRI—and for the NOPC for the DRI to be found a non-substantial deviation from the original development order.
The planning commission had voted in favor of conditional approval of the applicant’s request.
The Sandestin NOPC came before the BCC in December 2015, with a continuance to Jan. 21 approved in order for a traffic analysis to be provided to accompany the request.
When the BCC convened on Jan. 21, the request was again continued in light of a letter from state Department of Transportation (DOT) Secretary James T. Barfield. In the letter Barfield had noted the lack of traffic data and analyses submitted with Sandestin Investments’ traffic evaluation letter accompanying the NOPC application—and had suggested a partnership effort of DOT, the county and the developer to create a traffic analysis to be reviewed along with the NOPC application. That effort was pursued among representatives of the agency, the county, and stakeholders.
With a BCC hearing on the NOPC scheduled for Sept. 9, on Aug. 31 attorney Matthews sent a letter formally requesting for the hearing to be continued to the first week in December. The continuance was requested for reasons of DOT not having provided a “formal position” via a letter on Sandestin Investments’ amended NOPC application. Matthews also indicated that DEO and the Northwest Florida Regional Planning Council were also awaiting DOT’s written findings on the amended NOPC. The continuance was requested in order for the DOT letter to received and for all parties to have time to review it.
Matthews’ letter had indicated that Sandestin Investments did not intend to present the NOPC on Sept. 9—and that his client had authorized him to withdraw the NOPC application and an accompanying amendment in the event that the BCC denied the continuance request.
Greg Stewart, legal counsel for county staff, spoke in opposition to the continuance, as did three other attorneys representing affected parties.
“This has been a frustrating process, I think for everybody,” said Gary Hunter, an attorney representing the Sandestin Owners’ Association.
Hunter said he did not think the date requested for the continuance was coincidental but was likely related to the election, as “a new body” (the BCC with at least two new members) would be in existence on the date specified to consider the application.
If that is to be the case, Hunter suggested, the application should be withdrawn and a new one submitted so that the new commission could “start fresh” with review of the NOPC.
Newly-elected county commissioners are to be sworn in and take office on Nov. 22, the second Tuesday after the General Election.
Representing Sandestin homeowners at the Beachside Two condominium, attorney David Theriaque called for either a denial or a continuance limited to 45 days out.
“It should be flat denied,” Driftwood Estates resident Alan Osborne urged, calling traffic associated with the development “a state issue.”
Coming forward to address the commissioners, Becnel, Sandestin Resort owner since 2010, told them that no one in the room was more anxious than he was to get the matter behind him.
He and his representatives, Becnel continued, had worked diligently for years to resolve the situation. “We reached multiple agreements with staff…that were not complied with,” Becnel commented. Historical mistakes were made over the years with the DRI and “blessed” by the county, he stated.
Becnel found it hard to understand the calls to proceed in advance of receipt of the DOT traffic letter that “hasn’t been filed yet.”
He said he had previously-arranged plans to be out of the country beginning the following week for a month and would be “out of pocket” for five weeks.
District 5 Commissioner Cindy Meadows suggested continuing the request and scheduling a hearing for the week of Oct. 17. After some discussion, she moved to set it for Oct. 19. Her motion was not seconded.
BCC Chair Sara Comander suggested going ahead with the hearing without further delay and then having the traffic information provided to the BCC later when it was available. She relinquished the gavel to move for denial of the continuance, and her motion received a second.
“I don’t want to put it off,” Comander said, adding that she thought the matter needed to be heard before the change of BCC seats.
District 2 Commissioner Cecilia Jones commented that she likes to have all information ahead of time, and that if there is a pending letter, she would like to see it before making a decision.
The motion to deny the continuance carried in a 3-1 vote, with Meadows voting no and District 3 Commissioner Bill Imfeld abstaining and not present due to a business conflict.
Rather than proceed with the hearing, Matthews immediately withdrew the NOPC application and associated amendment.
Matthews indicated that a new application would be filed. The withdrawal will result in the county review process starting over with the NOPC application, with new hearings on the application to be held before the Walton County Planning Commission and then the BCC.