BLUE MOUNTAIN BEACH — A letter sent Tuesday to Walton County Planning Director Mac Carpenter could determine whether a proposed six-townhome development on a little more than three-quarters of an acre on Walton County Highway 30A just west of Blue Mountain Beach will be built.
The townhomes, four-story structures with a bottom story reserved for parking and uses other than occupancy, comprise a total of 5,760 square feet, with 4,320 square feet of living space. All are likely to become short-term vacation rental housing, according to the developer.
Tuesday's letter from Santa Rosa Beach-based Draper Townhomes LLC details what the development company is willing to do to address concerns of residents of The Pines, an adjacent subdivision comprising mostly single-family residences.
The letter follows a tense Monday meeting of the developer, along with legal counsel and the property owner, with residents of The Pines. The meeting had been ordered by Carpenter at the Jan. 5 meeting of the county's Technical Review Committee (TRC).
At the Jan. 5 meeting, TRC members voted unanimously to give Carpenter the authority to issue a development order for the project on the condition that the developer meet with residents of The Pines to discuss potential improvements to Blue Pine Boulevard, which runs alongside The Pines and the proposed site of the Draper Townhomes project.
For the Monday meeting with the developer, residents came with a request for three things: the repaving of a short section of Blue Pine Boulevard to meet county code requirements; leaving the Blue Pine Boulevard entrance island into The Pines on 30A untouched, and keeping construction traffic out of The Pines while the Draper Townhomes project, if approved, is under construction.
Tim Tricker, a resident of The Pines who attended the meeting, said Tuesday that the session was "very contentious." According to Tricker, representatives of the Draper Townhomes project outright told The Pines residents that "they weren't going to pay for roads to be brought up to county standards."
Countering Tricker's assertion, local attorney Stephen Tatum, who represents the developer, said county code officials have not been able to tell the developer what is needed to bring the road up to county standards.
"We don't know that it doesn't meet county code," Tatum said in a Tuesday interview. As an alternative, Tatum said the developer has offered to install special curbing along Blue Pine Boulevard that will keep the road's asphalt from crumbling along its edges.
Tricker acknowledged Tuesday that with regard to the requested paving, residents of The Pines are "at the mercy of the planning department's (which Carpenter heads) decision ... ."
"So," Tricker said, "we'll see what they come up with."
Addressing another neighborhood concern, Tatum said the developer will honor residents' request to keep construction traffic out of The Pines.
"We're going to find a place for construction parking to take place," he said Tuesday.
On a related point, and outside the scope of the letter but in connection with residents' concerns about traffic from the Draper Townhomes development, if built, coming into their neighborhood, Tatum said that eventual legal declarations associated with sales of the townhomes would address that issue.
"That's kind of a hard one to meet," Tatum said, but he added that declarations will denote there is to be no parking of vehicles using Draper Townhomes on Blue Pine Boulevard or Blue Wave Drive, a side street.
But for the immediate future, Tatum said Draper Townhomes is simply waiting for a determination from Carpenter as to whether its proposal will satisfy his directive for an accommodation of The Pines residents' concerns.
"This is an odd situation," Tatum said.
Issues regarding roads connected with the Draper Townhomes project have not been the only concerns for residents as it has been considered repeatedly over the last several months by the Technical Review Committee.
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In October, for instance, the developer tried to argue to the TRC that environmental preservation requirements on the tract, along with an 8-foot-wide multiple use path, and a designated physical fitness amenity comprising a pull-up bar and a bench, constituted property uses additional to the residential plan. That circumstance, argued an engineer for the project, gave the tract a mixed-use classification that allowed for nine townhomes.
After some pushback from Carpenter, the project was pared back to six townhomes, a reduction that the TRC was subsequently told would all but guarantee that the development would become short-term vacation rental housing. The proliferation of such housing, particularly in or near neighborhoods that are single-family residential enclaves, have prompted the county to begin considering potential controls over short-term vacation rental properties.
In that light, Tricker noted Tuesday that Draper Townhomes has become "a canary in the coal mine" in terms of providing an indication of exactly how far short-term vacation rental development can proceed in the county.
"This development has a lot of interest in the county," Tricker said. "I think that this one seems like the straw that broke the camel's back" in terms of the county asserting additional control over short-term vacation rental housing.
Also, Tricker said, "It shouldn't go unnoted that the current board of county commissioners is proving to be much more receptive to these issues."
And in fact, pushback against the Draper Townhomes project has produced action on the part of the county that could provide some relief to neighbors of short-term vacation rental housing. After residents of The Pines and other interested people argued that the townhomes should be considered four-story structures — the county's building code does not count unoccupied space, such as garages, as stories — Carpenter is moving to insert language into the county's land development code that would count those spaces as building stories.
That distinction is important because the number of stories in a structure determine how far it must be set back from neighboring properties — the higher the structure, the farther it must be set back. Thus, increased setbacks provide increased privacy for neighbors of tall structures such as short-term vacation rental houses by making it more difficult for people using those houses to see over into neighboring yards and homes.
"That's definitely a loophole that was being taken advantage of unfairly," Tricker said of the county's method of county building stories and the break it gave developers on setback requirements.
It's not yet clear whether the new definition of stories — which must be favorably reviewed by the Walton County Planning Commission and approved by the Walton County Board of County Commissioners after public hearings — would affect the Draper Townhomes project as the developer awaits a decision from Carpenter.
"It remains to be seen if they would try to enforce that against us," Tatum said. He added that Draper Townhomes already meets setback requirements for a four-story structure. The setbacks are 20 feet, he said, while the code requires just 19 feet.
This article originally appeared on Northwest Florida Daily News: 30A townhomes project decision in Walton planning director's hands