What We Learned About The County’s Future
We recently had the pleasure of speaking with several key people from the Walton County government to discuss growth and development in the county. Those joining in the conversation were Louis Svehla, Public Information Manager, Kristen Shell, Environmental Planner and Cecilia Jones, District Two Chairwoman. The subjects ranged from current developments in progress, future growth and what’s ahead for our growing community. We think you’ll agree the conversation was wide ranging and very informative.
The large-scale mixed use development of Kaiya was one of the first topics discussed. This development, already under construction, is located directly west of Alys Beach and will offer 148 homes and mixed-use facilities. It is designed with a master plan that preserves more than 39% of the land for neighborhood parks, wetlands and natural scrub oak growth and will offer connectivity to bike paths and trails. Ms. Shell remarked, “It really is another jewel in the string of new urbanist communities along Scenic 30A.” When completed, this community will offer a resort spa, 25 room Inn, formal town square with local shopping and dining, all while enhancing the natural beauty of the area.
Other high profile new construction projects include The May in Alys Beach which will encompass 6,236 square feet of restaurant space with eight residential units. Also, Seascape Town Center in Miramar Beach was on our radar as they develop a 51,665-square foot building which will house several restaurants and retail stores. We all commented on Grand Boulevard at Sandestin and its continued growth, and we were very excited about the additional major retail stores including Pottery Barn and Kinnucan’s as well as Emeril’s new restaurant, which are all coming this year.
With an office at 30 Avenue, Scenic Sotheby’s International Realty is in a great spot to help shape the growth of the Inlet Beach area. Of interest in this area of Walton County is consideration of a tunnel under Highway 98 to alleviate traffic hazards. We were happy to hear of the ongoing meetings with District 5 commissioner, Tony Anderson, and house representative Brad Drake to discuss funding and opportunities.
The topic turned to another exciting new project in South Walton – Costa Blanca at Gulf Place. This stunning Gulf front luxury condominium development takes the place of three existing single family homes, and will feature top of the line finishes including floor to ceiling windows, high ceilings, sub-zero and Wolf appliances, all pre wired for internet, sound and security. With over 200 feet of private beach and over-sized beachfront balconies overlooking the Gulf of Mexico, Costa Blanca will be a beautiful addition to the area. With land in short supply, it is becoming more and more apparent that tearing down and rebuilding on site may be the way to develop in the future.
During the meeting, there was much discussion on the near “build out” of South Walton County. It was estimated that only 12% of land is still available and can be developed. Because of the scarcity of land in South Walton, there have been strict codes and regulations put in place to protect this special environment. Chairwoman Jones reported, “What we try to promote on the county commission level is a family atmosphere, medium density, controlled, but sensitive development; we have a lot of forest land and St. Joe owns a lot of land, so we hope we won’t see a highly-developed area. While we are going through a lot of growing pains with a lot of tourists and a lot of people, we are headed in the right direction and hitting it head on.”
In fact, it’s worth noting the the population of Walton County is now at 62,000 and growing. In the last seven years, there has been a 15% increase in full-time county residents and it is estimated in the next five years, there will be an additional 30,000 permanent residents. Chairwoman Jones summarized the growth by saying, “We were the best kept secret for so long, but now the secret is out. People come and vacation here and now they want to come back and live and bring their families, which is great for us.”
Another glimpse into the growth of South Walton County can be confirmed by the recent statistics on building permits. In 2015, there were 877 building permits issued for South Walton County for a variety of residential units. This number swelled to 1,484 building permits making it a 60% increase in a one year period. Mr. Svehla clarified, “That would be county line to county line and south of the bay.”
Considering building permits for renovations, South Walton County issued 1,324 for a variety of renovations in 2015 and in 2016, there were 1,513 building permits issued for renovations in South Walton. Coupling new residential units and renovations, there were over 3,000 building permits for South Walton in 2016. Mr. Svehla noted, “Those permits can include things like putting in a swimming pool or actual remodels.”
Other top developments that will impact county residents is the new elementary school being built in South Walton and a sports complex built north of Highway 98 will add to the family dynamic in our area. County officials mentioned in our conversation that the sports complex is intended to offer recreation for all citizens but with a focus on those who have unique abilities, disabilities and wounded warriors.
During our discussion, we all agreed having the north and south county work together on projects will mutually benefit the entire county. North Walton County remains rural and is heavily agricultural while South Walton is developed and tourist oriented. There is a group, which is part of the Seaside Institute at Owls Head, who are interested in combining the growing and farming talents of the North and the tourist focus of the South to create a farm to table collaboration. Voicing the need was Mr. Svehla, “Instead of having to get our food from other areas, we’ll be able to get it from the north end to the south end, which will create a lot of internal growth.”
At Scenic Sotheby’s International Realty, we join the county employees in their desire to educate developers and citizens on the restrictions and requirements that may be in force in Walton County. For example, a builder may be required to have a storm water plan if the house is being built in an older development that was not required to implement one. There is a new service through the county called Citizens Serve on which permits can be requested online. We believe the checklist found online is vitally important when planning construction.
Chairwoman Jones spoke for the county when she said, “We are quickly nearing the build out of South Walton and we have a very established development pattern there. What has happened is very indicative of the board’s foresight and our plan of development, which has been in place since 1996, where you see a natural area, a lot of scrub oak preservation, we limit building height, we require a great deal of set back from the coastal area, and all of those things have come together over the years to create a very unique place.” We applaud the Commissioner and government officials as they reiterated many times that regulations have been put into place to keep Walton County as special and unique as it is. Mr. Svehla concluded the meeting by saying, “Our Scenic Corridor is such a valuable resource to protect as far as the look and the feel and how families live in this area. So, it may be harder for people to get an actual permit, but it’s only harder because we want to be special.”