What's the story on building stories? Walton officials are trying to tighten the definition.

·5 min read

DeFUNIAK SPRINGS — Walton County commissioners have unanimously authorized Walton County Planning Director Mac Carpenter to pursue amendments to the county land development code regarding residential building heights to make clear how the county defines what constitutes a story in residential construction.

The county does not currently define "story" in its land development code, but has instead used a definition of "story" included in the building code — which addresses technical issues such as elevator installations, fire suppression systems and parking — in dealing with land development issues.

Related: Controversial Walton townhome project heads toward approval; neighbors voice concern

That definition has become problematic because it doesn't count the ground floor of a residential structure as a story, if that ground floor is open and reserved for uses such as parking, Carpenter told commissioners Tuesday.

Thus, for example, if a residential structure is built with an open ground floor — as are many of the short-term vacation rental houses in the southern end of the county along and near its beaches, to accommodate parking and storage — what would appear to a layman to be, for instance, a four-story structure is currently considered a three-story building.

That's important because the number of stories in a residential structure determines how far it must be set back on its lot from neighboring properties. Those setbacks have been a growing issue for the county because of privacy concerns among neighboring property owners in single-story homes, according to Commissioner Danny Glidewell

'Don't want somebody looking in your bedroom'

"I mean, you don't want somebody (in a taller nearby structure) looking in your bedroom, or looking in your backyard or your swimming pool," Glidewell said.

He said that increasing setbacks, with a definition of a building story specific to the land development code, would change the angles of view into neighboring properties and thereby address privacy concerns.

A multiple-story short-term vacation rental property under construction on a Miramar Beach side street is an example of the proliferation of that type of development in southern Walton County.  A proposed amendment to the county's land development code would require increased setbacks for such structures.
A multiple-story short-term vacation rental property under construction on a Miramar Beach side street is an example of the proliferation of that type of development in southern Walton County. A proposed amendment to the county's land development code would require increased setbacks for such structures.

"The neighbors don't care if they (a neighboring property) have an elevator or not," Glidewell said. "They do care if a four-story (residential structure) is looking down into their daughter's bedroom."

Residential building heights have become an issue in the south end as developers have turned their attention to undeveloped lots in existing single-family neighborhoods — largely comprising single-story homes — to build multi-story short-term vacation rentals, Glidewell said.

"We're just growing so fast, and all these outlier lots are being bought and built on," he added. "In the last couple of years, it's become a big problem. We're getting more and more complaints about that part of the code."

Earlier: Residents concerned Draper Lake townhome development will be overbuilt, unsafe

Those concerns were manifested early this month as the county's Technical Review Committee (TRC) chaired by Carpenter considered a proposed six-townhome development on Walton County Highway 30A northwest of Blue Mountain Beach.

Residents of The Pines, an adjacent single-family subdivision, contended that the proposed multi-story 5,760-square-foot townhomes set to comprise the Draper Townhomes project, with an open first floor, should be counted as four-story structures rather than three stories in order to increase setbacks from homes in The Pines.

Carpenter used the Jan. 5 meeting, at which the TRC gave him the authority to issue a development order for the project — pending a successful meeting between the developer and nearby residents regarding potential road improvements — to hint strongly that he would move to amend the land development code to include a definition of what constitutes a story of a residential building.

Changing code for safety, compatibility

"This is probably going to be the genesis of changing ... the land development code to where we look at stories one way in the building code for the purposes of life safety, and we look at stories in a different way in the land development code for the purposes of compatibility," Carpenter said at the meeting.

Less than one week later Carpenter got commission approval to pursue that amendment.

In his Tuesday presentation to the commission, Carpenter referenced the Draper Townhomes project, explaining to commissioners, "In the land development code, the number of stories sometimes is a component in the methodology for determining a setback, and we recently had a case where what most people would believe to be a four-story building, if you're looking at it, had to be counted as a three-story building based on the (building code) definition of a story.

"We would like to change that to enhance our tools for compatibility (among and within residential areas)," he said.

In a Thursday interview, Carpenter said a draft proposal for a land development code amendment has been prepared. He said it calls for the land development code to define the ground floor of a residential structure as a story, regardless of whether it is open or enclosed. Additionally, the draft proposal increases the required side setback from 10 feet to 15 feet for affected residential structures.

Carpenter said the building code's definition of a building story would remain intact. Building code issues are a state matter, not a county issue, he noted.

The land development code requires that both the Walton County Planning Commission and the Walton County Board of County Commissioners hold public hearings on any proposed amendments in advance of any final commission vote.

Glidewell said Thursday that he wants to have an amendment in place "as soon as possible."

"I want it fixed yesterday," he said.

This article originally appeared on Northwest Florida Daily News: Walton County officials moving on residential building issue

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