Preserve returned to county, builders

Published Aug. 13, 1997|Updated Oct. 1, 2005

Florida bought the land five years ago to preserve a slice of nature.

Now, the once-pristine property in the Panhandle is to become a bustling community, with a county annex, a library, schools and neighborhoods built by private developers.

The state's highest elected officials approved the switch on Tuesday, declaring that some 420 acres of state preservation land in south Walton County no longer needs to be preserved after all. The acreage is part of the huge Topsail Hill purchase of 1992, one of Florida's best-known environmental land buys.

Tuesday's decision allows the state to sell the 420-acre parcel to county officials and private developers for what's being called New Town in south Walton County.

Environmentalists consider the decision a broken promise, the first significant retreat from Florida's pledge to protect treasured beaches and property as part of the popular Preservation 2000 land-buying program.

"We do believe it is a precedent," said George Willson, land acquisition director for the Florida chapter of the Nature Conservancy.

But community leaders are thrilled, saying too much of Walton's property was gobbled up by the state for preservation in 1992.

"Do we have some responsibility to a county if we're going to buy all that land in that county?" asked Gov. Lawton Chiles. "At some stage there has to be some modicum of not only common sense, but common decency . . . that we're going to give some equity to a county."

Chiles supported the switch Tuesday but didn't join six Cabinet members who voted for it.

Danny Fuchs, the governor's chief Cabinet aide, said Chiles objected to a last-minute change insisted on by Secretary of State Sandra Mortham: Setting up a work group that would recommend a comprehensive plan on how to deal with preservation lands that will be developed by private interests rather than county government. Chiles thought the work group would slow down what has already been a long process to return state lands to Walton County, Fuchs said.

The struggle began in May 1992, when the governor and Cabinet jumped on the chance to buy pristine lands in the Panhandle at a bargain price. The lands were being auctioned as part of a federal program dealing with failed savings and loan associations.

The state got a package deal for $20-million: A 328-acre parcel in the Topsail Hill project, beachfront property considered a top priority in the land acquisition program; and 17,672 acres of adjacent forest land that was not ranked high on the priority list.

County officials said the package deal not only took a big chunk of land from the county's tax rolls but also robbed them of development potential. State officials have been sympathetic.

The decision Tuesday involves only 420 acres of land, and of that, less than 180 acres is considered suitable for development because of wetlands throughout the site.

New Town would be a "walkable, sustainable community," where pedestrian and bike paths would be installed to reduce the need for cars, according to a master plan.

Community leaders envision a town square, a new public building for court and government services, a middle and high school complex, a park and library, a movie theater, a commercial site and single and multifamily housing.

Comptroller Bob Milligan stirred some debate by asking if such a town couldn't be built elsewhere in the county, where preservation lands wouldn't be involved.

Manley Fuller, of the Florida Wildlife Federation, urged state officials to look at different property, or at least allow the site to be used for government buildings only.

But a number of other speakers said they had studied this matter thoroughly and came up with the best site.

A delegation of Walton County officials filled the meeting room and clapped whenever speakers supported their side.

State officials insisted several times Tuesday that they weren't setting a precedent with their decision. They even approved language with their vote: "This determination should not be considered a precedent for the support of further dispositions of Preservation 2000 lands. . . ."

But environmentalists weren't convinced.

Willson, of the Nature Conservancy, told the governor and Cabinet: "You're opening up Pandora's box here, whether you say it's a precedent or not."