By Dave Rauschkolb
Like in any very special place, there are going to be passionate, opposing forces at work to control what happens to it. I’ve lived in Northwest Florida since 1972 and have seen Fort Walton Beach, Destin, Panama City and now South Walton go through this painful and sometimes ugly fight to balance growth with preservation of community character. Where there is passion there are strong feelings of fear and loathing for the opposing forces. On one side there is fear of over control, on the other fear of overdevelopment, and both sides have a fear of change. And plenty of loathing to go around for the opposing view.
The recent primary election in South Walton’s District 5 hits at the core of this issue. Each candidate raised over $100,000 to have the privilege or curse of being one of five County Commissioners who will determine the future of South Walton. The incumbent was largely supported by South Walton residents clinging to the hope that a voice of preservation and smart, compatible development would be preserved. The challenger and newly elected Commissioner was funded largely by development interests hoping to retain as little development regulation and control as possible.
The recent approval and eventual denial of a Hampton Inn on Scenic 30A after a lengthy, expensive legal battle sowed the seeds of the community coming together to defy and challenge those forces at work that would change the character of South Walton. Most citizens are not against development, but the operative word most mention is “compatibility.” Surely, the Planning and Zoning Board struggles with this concept with every new building application. Certainly, some of the variances that are given are justified, but many people feel far too often they are allowing totally incompatible developments to occur. Now that the Maui Waves/Snappy Turtle Company is proposing a 7,000-square-foot store on Dalton Drive in a residential area, the “Whack a Mole” process is starting all over again. The community is up in arms and lining up for fight to stop yet another “incompatible development.”
Beyond development concerns there is a feeling among South Walton residents that with only one County Commissioner actually living in South Walton there is a lack of representation in our current county government for South Walton. Nearly 90 percent of the taxes in all of South Walton are collected south of the bay, and many residents are screaming “taxation without representation.” Also, with the increasing urbanization of South Walton, there are very complex issues specific to South Walton and lacking infrastructure needs going into the future.
Shortly after the Hampton Inn was halted, the group called A Better South Walton was formed to seek possible governance solutions for South Walton. The group is made up of a bipartisan, eight-member board of full-time South Walton residents. The effort is gaining steam and popularity with the suggestion of creating a fourth Walton County city called “The Town of South Walton,” promising comprehensive, focused and representative governance. A feasibility study was commissioned and charter completed to be submitted to the Florida Legislature this fall. The goal is to allow the voters of South Walton to vote for or against Incorporation in August of 2017.
Five well-attended community meetings and three charter workshops were completed throughout the summer. A three-district board of City Commissioners is being suggested representing Miramar/Sandestin, Central South Walton and the Eastern block to Inlet Beach. Two City Commissioners would represent each district as well, and a voting Mayor seat is planned. Seven South Walton residents would be working fulltime on South Walton issues and needs. Anyone with questions may go to abettersouthwalton.org to read the Feasibility Study, Charter and any other information.
Besides those fearing over control of development, those opposing incorporation will fear “more taxes and more government.” But the feasibility study shows no raise in taxes is necessary, provided State Shared Revenue is granted by the State. Through inter-local agreements with the county, the new city would keep nearly all services intact and currently paid for with existing ad valorem taxes. Fire, sheriff, mosquito control, parks and recreation, etc., would all stay the same and be paid for with existing taxes. The only newly formed component would be a new Planning and Zoning entity along with a newly written comprehensive plan specific only to South Walton.
One thing for certain, this same struggle happened in Fort Walton and Destin and is being played out in South Walton. At least there is time to hopefully strike a balance that will ensure property values stay strong and the valued character of the area is retained. The question to ask is this—are we happy with our current government and representation, or should we seek another solution?
There is no shortage of fear and loathing to go around as the opposing forces line up to determine the future of South Walton. Hopefully, both sides can strike a balance that will retain all the elements that make South Walton a desired place to live and visit. If we can strike that balance, certainly our children and grandchildren will thank us.
Next Issue: Another view on SoWal incorporation.