Workshop on Village Mixed Use classification draws community interest

Should requirements for Village Mixed Use (VMU) projects on CR-30A be different than those applying to U.S. 98?
There appears to be agreement that this should be so. However, aside than that, there are lots of different opinions on revisions that the county is proposing for the VMU land use classification.
Walton County Planning and Development Services held a Jan. 29 workshop at the South Walton Annex on the proposed revisions in order to seek input on them and ideas from the public on this land use category.
Village Mixed Use centers are primarily located on U.S. 98, U.S. 331 in south Walton County, and CR-30A. New VMU centers may only be designated on U.S. 98 and U.S. 331 south of the bay. According to Policy L-1.3.8 of the Walton County Comprehensive Plan (CP), this land use category “is intended to provide opportunities for small scale mixed use development designed to serve a series of neighborhoods.”
A proposed amendment to the CP would exclude the requirement for mixed land uses on VMU parcels of less than five acres in size, clarify the uses required in the district, and add criteria for density bonuses.
Currently density allowed in VMU parcels is stated as “up to 12” units per acres by the CP, “so long as the residential units are integrated with nonresidential uses to created the mixed use, and the proposed project ensures compatibility with the surrounding neighborhoods.”
Proposed revisions would establish a requirement for mixed land use in order for a density of 12 units to be allowed, and four units per acres would be set as the base density for VMU parcels. Density bonuses would encourage “innovative design for the purpose of creating walkable communities which reduce traffic generation,” according to the revision language.
A requirement for 10 percent of active or passive recreation would also be set for VMU centers on U.S. 98, CR-30A designated scenic corridors, and U.S. 331 south of the bay.
For proposals on VMU parcels in these areas of less than five acres, mixed uses would not be required, but conditional use approval would be required for single-use projects.
For VMU parcels not fronting U.S. 98, CR-30A designated scenic corridors, or  U.S. 331 south of the bay, active or passive recreation would also be required to comprise at least 10 percent of the VMU land area, and percentages for residential and nonresidential uses on the parcel would be set. Density bonus criteria would apply on these parcels as well.
While this was not part of the draft revisions, Tim Brown, Walton County planning manager, said that there had been discussion of a tier system for VMU that would add a tier specifically for CR-30A with reduced allowable floor area ratio and impervious surface ratio. Another suggestion had been to reduce the number of allowable hotel or motel units for VMU projects on CR-30A from 125 to 75, he said.
Lloyd Blue, a county resident, owner of VMU property and a developer, was critical of the proposed decrease in base density for VMU. He asked why the county would propose taking the VMU, the highest-density land use category, down to a density “rivaling Residential Preservation.”
“We have a very limited amount of developable property…there is precious little VMU,” Blue also commented.
When told that the proposed revisions were not set in stone and that input on them was being sought, Blue responded that he understood this but that “this is my opportunity to express my shock and outrage.”
Blue was also critical of the proposed requirements for passive recreation and conditional use approval for the smaller VMU parcels. He likened the latter to “a popularity contest.”
Later Blue did come forward to clarify that he agreed that VMU parcels on CR-30A should be treated differently, partly due to the county road’s infrastructure constraints, than those on U.S. 98 and U.S. 331.
Oyster Lake resident Jacquee Markel, who spoke next, supported a separate VMU designation for CR-30A. “What applies on 98 does not really work on 30A,” she said. “30A is two lanes, and it’s always going to be two lanes,” she added.
Markel also spoke in support of the concept of “up to 12” units per acre and not automatically 12. “There is only so much that this area can bear,” she told the planners.
Markel said she applauded the county taking a look at density limitations on VMU and at the interest being taken in “the unique character of our community.” She urged for any increase in density to be applied to U.S. 98 or U.S. 331, not CR-30A.
South Walton County resident Anita Page raised the question of why parcels five acres are smaller are designated as VMU if they are to be considered too small for more than one land use.
Page urged for a look at “the big picture” of what is lacking in the community and how to get to what both the community and businesses need.
She warned of problems with the application of the bonus point system and stressed the importance of making any such plan functional.
Page recalled that there had been proposed language to treat CR-30A differently in conjunction with the last Evaluation and Appraisal Report (EAR) amendments to the CP—but that it had been later removed from those amendments, which were made official in 2011. “There was some good stuff in there,” she said.
Page urged for more workshops on VMU. She highlighted the importance of citizens’ input because it is the residents, she noted, who “deal with the day-to-day impacts” of decisions such as these.
Blue Mountain Beach resident Leonard Anderson called for a look at strict zoning.
South Walton County resident Lisa Boushy said she had been concerned about VMU since the recent proposal of the Hampton Inn for CR-30A. It was her opinion that no chain developments belonged on CR-30A.
Tim Pauls, a former Walton County commissioner and developer of the Topsail Village mixed-use development, spoke in support of looking at CR-30A in a “new way” with regard to VMU. Pauls said he had not liked many of the changes as the area has developed. “We are victims of our own success,” he told the planners.
Pauls identified having decisions made about south Walton County “by people who don’t live here,” as a problem.
He was critical of the 10-percent requirement for passive space, seeing three acres of passive space as “too much” for a 30-acre parcel, for example.
South Walton County resident Amanda Schuette was critical of developers being “focused on what they could do rather than what they should do.” She urged for livability to be factored into VMU.
Attendee Ben Hammet identified the lack of connectivity between developments in south Walton County as a problem. He called for a proactive approach to planning for the future.
Local realtor Garner Chandler urged for a look at “the whole issue” of VMU rather than taking a “band-aid” approach to problems of the land use classification.
Mitchell Taub, who described himself as “almost a full-time resident,” told the planners that the county had “more than reached your capacity,” on CR-30A. He urged for attention to “how you protect it.”
“We want to keep it special,” Anita Page agreed.
“We’re trying to bring clarity and what makes sense,” said Brown.
“We’re all about making where we live better for all of us,” said Mac Carpenter, Walton County senior planner, a Walton County native.
“We clearly understand the importance of what we’re dealing with here,” he continued, asking for help from attendees.
Carpenter noted that planners are “looking for good ideas” that will not unduly impact people who have invested in property in the county. “We are very sensitive to property right,” he said.
Input from the workshop is to be provided to the Walton County Board of County Commissioners, who would have the final decision on any changes to VMU requirements.
Information on the proposed revisions and on the VMU land use classification is available from Walton County Planning and Development Services by calling (850) 267-1955.

Economic development tax exemption proposal fails in 2-2 vote

After a lively debate, a proposal to implement a five-year, 100-percent ad valorem tax exemption for Empire Truck Sales, a business locating at the Mossy Head Industrial Park, failed to carry.
The decision came at a 4 p.m. Jan. 27 Walton County Board of County Commissioners (BCC) public hearing on the proposal at the Walton County Courthouse. All commissioners were present with the exception of District 1 Commissioner Bill Chapman.
In the 2012 General Election, voters had approved a referendum establishing authority for the BCC to grant ad valorem tax exemptions for economic development. The approval provided for the county commission to furnish, based on Florida Statutes, ad valorem tax exemptions to new businesses and businesses which are expanding, at the BCC’s discretion.
Following an exemption request by Empire Truck Sales and a request for a renewal of a previously-approved exemption for Professional Products, in November 2014 the BCC had approved a set of criteria for review and evaluation of applications for economic development ad valorem tax exemptions. Utilized in connection with the criteria were the amount of capital investment to take place and wages associated with new jobs to be provided.
At the Dec. 9, 2014 BCC meeting, Walton County Administrator Larry Jones had reported that, based upon the evaluation formula approved by the BCC, Empire Truck Sales would qualify for a 100-percent tax exemption for up to a 10-year period, with annual reviews of the exemption to take place. The reviews would be to determine whether the business was complying with the investment and job creation that had been part of the terms of approval for the exemption.
The BCC had voted 4-1 at that time in favor of the exemption, subject to official language to implement the measure, with attached conditions for the exemption to be discontinued if a catastrophic event or events such as a hurricane should occur and impact tax revenue.
A proposed ordinance setting forth the tax exemption was presented to the BCC at the Jan. 27 meeting. The ordinance stated that the contract for the exemption would “contain language that requires review and amendment or repeal of the exemption if Walton County’s ad valorem tax base decreases by 10-percent from one tax year to the next.”
District 2 Commissioner Cecilia Jones was first to speak, initially asking for “some time to think” about the proposal. She described what was being considered as “opening a door” because rather than being used as a means to attract a business, the exemption would be implemented for a business already coming to the county.
“If we open the door, at what point do we stop?” Jones asked. She could foresee many tax exemption applications, including applications from existing local businesses.
District 5 Commissioner Cindy Meadows also commented that she was not in favor of approving a 100-percent tax exemption for Empire. She did not say that she would not consider an exemption of a lesser percent.
District 4 Commissioner Sara Comander countered that Empire would be constructing a $4 million building for their dealership and would be buying supplies locally. They would also be creating jobs for people who would live here, she added.
According to information provided at the hearing, the company expects to create up to 10 new jobs at start up and 28 additional jobs within its first eight years of operation.
Comander also looked at the exemption as a way of sending the message, “Walton County is business friendly.”
Meadows responded that there is no guarantee where supplies for the building will be bought or whether company employees will live in the county, as they could live in nearby Niceville, for example.
Walton County Commission Chairman Bill Imfeld reminded the other commissioners that as a board they had previously supported telling companies that the BCC would consider abatement of their taxes if the businesses met the set of criteria established by the county. He was concerned about the message that not following through with the exemption would convey.
Meadows commented the BCC’s decision on the exemption would also send a message to the tax-paying public.
Comander motioned for approval of the ordinance, and Imfeld seconded.
Coming forward to comment, south Walton County resident Bill Fletcher brought up recent studies challenging the economic development effectiveness of tax exemptions and enterprise zones, areas in which Florida businesses receive state sales tax refunds and job tax credits. The Mossy Head Industrial Park is among the enterprise zones in Walton County.
Fletcher made the case that businesses make the decision to come into an area based on location and whether they believe they will be successful there. He argued that Walton County does not need to entice businesses to the industrial park with tax exemptions. Neither, he said does the county need to “give” Empire $17,000, the annual amount they would pay in ad valorem taxes to the county, in order for the business to be successful. If a tax exemption is provided for one business, why not all? he questioned.
“I think you have a jewel there that will continue to grow,” Fletcher said of the Mossy Head Industrial Park.
Meadows asked if Empire had closed on their property at the industrial park. The response was that they had.
Imfeld pointed out that results of rural enterprise zones have been reported as better than ones in urban areas. He added that the county’s consideration of a tax exemption for a business interested in locating in Freeport has been “key” to wooing that business. The name of the business was not identified in the discussion.
Cecilia Jones responded that the difference with the Empire Truck Sales situation is that “this one is retroactive, I believe.” With the business interested in locating in Freeport, she said, the business “may not come in unless we roll the red carpet out.”
Imfeld said his point had been that the commissioners should not “take a broad brush” approach to tax exemptions.
Comander commented that the BCC had promised to create jobs. “We’re trying to do it,” she said.
Meadows said she would look at applications for tax exemptions on a “case by case basis.” She noted that she had not said that she would not vote for other exemption proposals.
“These incentives do not work,” Fletcher reiterated.
South Walton County resident Bob Hudson pointed out that the county had received quite a good return on investment in connection with the 10 acres sold to Empire Truck Sales. He calculated the return on investment at $140,000, considering that the land had been obtained by the county at an approximate cost of $600 per acres. Hudson pointed out that the property up to now had not collected “a dime” of property taxes as it sat vacant.
Since the industrial park has begun to be aggressively marketed, $7 million in investment in the property has occurred at no cost to taxpayers, among other benefits, Hudson continued. “I don’t want us to stop,” he said.
In response to a question, Walton County Attorney Mark Davis stated that Empire had applied for the tax exemption in August 2014 and had closed on their property at the industrial park on Oct. 1, 2014.
With discussion concluded, a vote was taken, with Comander and Imfeld voting in favor and Jones and Meadows voting no. This resulted in failure of the motion and denial of the exemption ordinance.