South Walton TDC pursuing new visitor center site
By DOTTY NIST
South Walton Tourist Development Council (TDC) Executive Director Dawn Moliterno provided a report on Sept. 13 to county commissioners on plans for a new site for the TDC office and on other tourism-related matters.
The information was provided at the Sept. 13 Walton County Board of County Commissioners (BCC) regular meeting at the South Walton Courthouse Annex.
Moliterno told the commissioners that the 2011 tourist season had been the best on record for Walton County and that all the TDC’s strategic plan objectives for the 2010-11 fiscal year had been accomplished.
A building analysis focusing on space needs for the organization had resulted in a decision by the TDC members to pursue a site on the south side of the U.S. 331/U.S. 98 intersection, on Florida Forest Service property, for a new TDC visitor information/welcome center and new TDC offices. With authorization by the BCC, Moliterno had submitted a request to the forest service for acquisition of the site.
Moliterno said a six-month process would be required for the acquisition and that public hearings would be part of that process. Construction costs for the new building were reported as $4.5 million exclusive of land acquisition expenses. Moliterno said the funds would come from the TDC’s reserve account, which currently contains $10 million and will soon be increased by $1.5 million from BP. The cost estimate does not include expenditures to return the current building site, which is under lease from the forest service, to its predevelopment condition per lease requirements.
Moliterno also reported that TDC members had decided against pursuing a south Walton County sports complex after reviewing a feasibility study on the possibility. Construction cost for the facility had been estimated at $13.5 million for an outdoor facility, with insufficient demand deemed to exist at this time for an indoor component. An annual subsidy of $378,000 to $431,000 per year was determined to be required for the facility on the part of the TDC, Moliterno explained.
Moliterno added that all the TDC’s blue signs, including the ones around the visitor center and offices would be coming down to be repainted in “that beautiful bronze color that everyone likes.” This is the color that was recently used for repainting of the TDC’s wayfinding signs along CR-30A. The new “South Walton” cursive-letter logo will also replace the previous “Beaches of South Walton” logo and red and white umbrellas on the signs.
Last edited by kurt; 03-19-2012 at 07:58 PM.
The information in this write up, about the analysis, is vague at best. I can't tell from this if a new building is necessary. Hopefully someone posts some details.
The claim is that a new location is necessary because the current visitor's center got "landlocked" when the highway was 4-laned. In other words there is no turn lane unless you do a left turn at the light then a U-turn, or if you are headed out of town. Also they are running out of office space.
Last edited by kurt; 05-09-2012 at 07:44 AM.
I think a visitor center that can actually be "visited" by those entering town is a great idea.
Question this location and the cost - IMO the best spot would be south of the bridge on the west side of 331 near the annex.
Why do we need to use forest when there are vacant commercial lots lining 331?
Last edited by scooterbug44; 10-03-2011 at 10:30 AM.
Just kidding about the live alligators but it was joked that would really bring folks in if you had them and/or a water park on site.
Apparently, the forest would be cleared somewhere anyhow for a forest service facility. Instead they will get office space in the visitors' center,giving an opportunity to teach visitors about our forest resources, management and protection.
Last edited by kurt; 05-09-2012 at 07:47 AM.
I see. That intersection is a pain in the butox. The way you describe the new place sounds nice. There really isn't any thing else around here like that. Kind of a rest stop/nature area. Cool
I definitely think we are long overdue for a nice welcome center/rest area, but IMO there are a couple kinks to get worked out in this plan.
I think the photo area, the dog area, restrooms, and the picnic area are great things to have and will get used a lot.
But paving 5 acres of the state forest for a facility that is going to have many of the same activities and functions that we already have and that are not being fully utilized or that are being closed due to funding cuts seems crazy. A couple offices for the Forest Service would not need 5 acres so I don't find it an even trade.
Also don't see why we couldn't have all the offices/administration on the 2nd floor to reduce the size of the building's footprint.
Supporting, improving, promoting, and maintaining the existing facilities would be far better than building more redundant ones.
That is a great idea - they should do a LEED certified building with a community garden on the roof!
I was thinking a garden so the local schoolkids could grow food for the schools and various charities.
10-03-2011, 03:00 PM #12
A 2,000 seat theater would be nice.[SIGPIC][/SIGPIC]
10-03-2011, 05:26 PM #13
- Join Date
- Jun 2005
- Dallas/WaterColor/on computer
I've been coming down to the area since 1986 and have never been to the TDC visitor site.Which community along 30A shall we pillage this evening?....gttbm
I only go there to use the restroom when I am carpooling from the 331 annex on the weekends.
10-04-2011, 07:31 AM #15
- Join Date
- May 2006
- Seacrest Beach and WaterColor
There's nothing like mowing the roof.
10-04-2011, 08:01 AM #16
- Join Date
- Jan 2006
- Backatown Seagrove
10-04-2011, 08:23 AM #17
- Join Date
- Apr 2006
- New York/ Santa Rosa Beach
Does the TDC post signs along heavily traveled roads now? I have never seen one and I have come in different ways to the beach. They do this in Massachusetts and the visitors centers get lots of use, especially if they have rest rooms and someone on staff to answer questions. They also have lots of brochures, maps, restaurant information, etc. Some of the larger ones have grills and picnic areas."With Liberty and nothing for all" ---my 3 yr. old nephew's version of the Pledge of Allegiance.
10-04-2011, 10:03 AM #18
- Join Date
- Jun 2009
- Florida Panhandle & Seattle
I've been to the Visitor's Center a bunch of time, for no other reason that it's just nice to talk to the great folks who work there. Never know what neat tidbit you'll pick up during the conversation.
I definitely think we need a new visitor center - just like to quibble about the details and make crazy suggestions. Am serious about it being LEED or at least having solar panels though.
Murray - you don't mow the roof, you plant stuff that doesn't need mowing!
10-04-2011, 12:25 PM #21
- Join Date
- Jan 2006
- Backatown Seagrove
NO palm trees!
Dune lake exhibit.
Beach crap education and potentially a site for drop off & pick up of said crap (ala the penny tray at a cash register). Recycle balls, chairs, toys, rafts, noodles etc. Maybe some local merchants would step forward and donate coupons for free/discounted food/drink/clothing in exchange for a drop off of beach junk...it might encourage one final food or service purchase in SOWAL instead of losing it to McDonalds or KFC on one of the exit routes. And it will keep crap out of our landfill!
10-04-2011, 12:56 PM #22
- Join Date
- Apr 2006
- New York/ Santa Rosa Beach
interactive displays that ask questions and that people can touch, especially about the turtles and other sea life. Free coloring books, like the one online at the turtle site.
A dune lake video and/or exhibit should be a definite. Most of my renters who have been to the area before have no clue how rare the dune lakes are and the measures taken to protect them. I send them a link to the video online and that is what I get most comments about."With Liberty and nothing for all" ---my 3 yr. old nephew's version of the Pledge of Allegiance.
I think some interactive displays and videos would be great - rip currents, getting your crap off the beaches, flag system (why this is so hard for everyone to understand is beyond me, but I also don't think the fire lane is a parking space), a calender with major events, dune lakes, why one should not drive golf carts down the bike path, turtles hatching, keeping bears away from your trash, recycling program (if we ever get one), basic rules, you name it.
Love the idea of a beach debris swap and AMEN on the "no palm trees".
And I can think of nothing more satisfying than using BP money to build a renewable energy building with any provided staff cars in the parking lot hybrids!
10-10-2011, 06:36 PM #24
- Join Date
- Jan 2005
- Michigan but someday in SoWal as well
I like the idea of a new visitor center. I've been to the other one (but not in a while). As someone who rents out cottages and wants to give guests a great experience and also teach them how to "beach like a native" (such as be aware of the turtle "rules" and why they're important, taking stuff off the beach, knowing the flag system, etc.), I like to get nicely colored brochures (e.g,. the SoWal maps, the flag system, the turtle rules) and frame them in my rental cottages so visitors learn abou the area, have the maps to find their way around, etc. And these brochures and MAP are actually pretty in the cottages. I'm going to frame the local fish brochure that I bought at the fishing store as well.
Other things to have at the center:
- Really nice post cards (Kurt?)
- A video/interactive experience about "beach like a native" (I really like that slogan) and maybe a video about how the beach renews itself after hurricanes/tropical storms so people don't think hurricanes are completely bad things and they actually serve good purposes for the beach in many ways. Maybe "Meet Mother Nature" could be a theme as well - hurricanes, weather, endangered specials, not endanged specials, turtles, etc.)
- Something about the history of the area - the Native Americans, how the area was settled, how it grew, important dates in history. The TDC could also be an area that school children (local or otherwise) come to visit as well to learn something. Anything education could be done not to be boring or heavy handed (e.g., "you should do this to save the environment" or "you'll get in trouble if you don't take care of the environment) but rather something that helps visitors and locals honestly believe they're part of something really beautiful, really important, and something greater than themselves. And the educational part could be fun (how about using the original SoWal "Funn" somewhere at TDC)
-picnic tables, nice bathrooms, and things locals can do just to hang out there
-Maybe something about locally grown foods, crafts, art, etc. and where to find it
- I like the architecture to be more consistent with the local architecture (something class that says you're at the beach) rather than modern, though that's just my personal preference - I like places that make me feel warm and fuzzy inside.Paula
10-11-2011, 08:44 AM #25
It would be nice to see some time/attention spent resolving the Dothan Ave walkover mess. The TDC has plenty of money, but it's the typical blame game - DEP needs to issue a permit to fix the mess created by some people from Scotland building a house where the obviously raised the lot level and created a big time runoff/erosion issue. Meanwhile, the dirt on the beach looks like dirt on the beach and the walk over has been re-enforced to look like the Occupy Wall Street protest campsite. I'm sure a new visitor center would be nice though.
Nice bathrooms should be a priority - the ones at the current TDC are dark and don't even have toilet paper holders! And the ones at the new airport are nicely decorated, but don't seem very clean.
Like the idea of local art on display (like the library does), but to be fair I think it should rotate frequently and be on loan, not purchased.
10-12-2011, 02:54 PM #27
I like the idea of placing the offices on the 2nd floor and devote the entire 1st floor to assisting visitors. Reduce the building footprint and make it more user friendly. And NO palm trees. Use plants and trees that are native to the area.
10-23-2011, 09:49 AM #28
I agree with you 100%. The TDC needs to focus on educating the visitors to the local laws, ordinances and safety issues. Every year someone dies from a drowning (rip), this could be prevented if people did not go in the water when conditions are such. A bit of education goes a long way. We need more than a beach crab magnet telling you about a current.
Also, how about "you" (tourist) pick up your trash at the end of the day? No bottles, glass on the beach (the local stores could get involved and stock up on more cans with their products and even sell the new soft plastic wine glasses (they are very nice).
Golf Carts, this too needs more clairification. Do they need to be registered (license plate)? I hear two trains of thought on this and one says that if the speed limit on the road is less than "xyz" you don't need one. Does anyone know? I don't think the sheriffs office even knows... They won't enforce DUI laws on private property (Sandestin).
The more we allow ignorantance to stand uncorrected, the only blame when something happens lies with us.
TDC is becoming the topic of too many negative conversations. This entity should be positive and productive. Spending $$$ to change a sign is not good management. Paying a manager $100k+ is not good business either.
10-30-2011, 06:06 AM #29
what a waste
I think a better idea is to do away with the TDC and eliminate the bed tax!
10-30-2011, 07:24 AM #30
I thought the idea when they built the Visitor's Center was that it would be moved. Maybe there are some back issues of the paper that would explain the plans for that building before the BP windfall became available.
10-30-2011, 08:41 AM #31
03-13-2012, 08:06 AM #33
The TDC has been negotiating with the Florida Forest Service to relocate their administrative offices, conference room, welcome center, etc. to an 11.9 acre section of the Pt. Washington State Forest. It is the forest area on the south side of U.S. 98 and 331 intersection. The actual development will encompass approximately 8 acres. The TDC is seeking a 50 year lease at a dollar a year.
The Executive Director of the TDC, Dawn Moliterno, will be making a presentation to the TDC Advisory Council on Tuesday, March 13th at 9 AM at the TDC offices.
She will also be making a presentation to the county commissioners at their regularly scheduled public meeting on Tuesday, March 13th beginning at 4PM at the courthouse in South Walton.
Both the Advisory Council and the County Commissioners are being asked to approve "working terms" with Forestry. I have provided a copy of the "Memorandum of Working Terms" which will be presented at both meetings. (See below) You can also see some renderings and other documents on the proposed development -
The land the TDC wants to develop is public land which has been placed in conservation. It is part of the habitat which makes up the Pt. Washington State Forest. This proposal would obviously remove at least 8 acres from that habitat. Up until now, there has been no presentation on other potential sites. There are various issues with the proposed forest site including a previous Settlement Agreement, the Forestry Management Plan for the PWSF, etc. as well as the overarching issue of further fragmenting the forest for county needs for which there could be other alternatives.
I apologize for this short notice but I wanted to make sure this items was on the agenda before we sent out a Member Alert. If you are interested in the forest and its role in our community, please try to attend both of these meetings. If you cannot attend both, please try to make the County Commission meeting at 4PM to hear the presentation.
SWCC Executive Director
DRAFTMEMORANDUM OF WORKING TERMSTo: Walton County Board of County Commissioners, and
Walton County Tourist Development Council
From: Dawn Moliterno
Executive Director, Walton County Tourist Development Council
Dated: March 5, 2012
In re: Working Terms for Negotiation with State of Florida - Forestry
Per the recommendation and approval of the BCC, the Tourist Development Council (“TDC”) has been working cooperatively with Forestry Services to develop working terms on the new South Walton Discovery Center. The TDC recommendation (TDC Advisory Council meeting April 28, 2011 motion; Make a formal recommendation to relocate the TDC building to the south side of 331 and 98, enter negations to acquire property from the Division of Forestry, and to build a building that matches the brand including meeting all building codes, ADA and staffing to support the visitors experience - Passed unanimously) has guided the discussions and resulted in a net benefit to visitors and public alike.
In our conversations with Forestry Services, certain general terms have been identified as possible terms for an agreement between the County and the State to bring this plan to fruition. I have included those herein for review and approval.
Both the TDC and the Board of County Commissioners need to authorize an initial set of “working terms” that can be sent to the State in a draft agreement so that the negotiations can occur, and a public process can be held.
The “working terms” are as follows:
- The State of Florida would lease to Walton County 11.9 acres of real property located directly south of the intersection of U.S. Highway 331 and U.S. Highway 98.
- This lease would be for a term of fifty (50) years, at a rate of one dollar ($1.00) per year. Additional terms, up to fifty (50) years each, may be agreed to by both parties.
- The County would use approximately eight (8) acres of the total parcel to construct a new TDC Visitor Center and TDC Office Building, and related infrastructure, all of which would collaboratively serve as a nature center/nature education center, with a goal of enhancing awareness of the unique natural resources and habitats that exist in Walton County, specifically the portion of Walton County lying south of the Choctawhatchee Bay. The remaining property would be undeveloped and managed in a fashion to prevent controlled burns from crossing the property.
- The County shall convey to the State of Florida/Forestry the existing 1.1 acre site where the existing TDC Building and Visitor Center is located, including the building itself.
- All costs shall be borne by the County, except that the State shall be responsible for all costs associated with preparation of documents that it is required to deliver to the County (not including surveys or environmental assessments).
- The State of Florida/Forestry shall be entitled to select the entity performing any surveying on the property to be leased to the County and the entity(s) performing the environmental assessments on either parcel of land discussed herein, with the County responsible for the costs associated therewith.
These terms shall be placed into a draft agreement of suitable form to the State, and transmitted to State to begin negotiations on these terms. This list of terms is intended to cover all substantive terms initially proposed. Additional not substantive terms, including but not limited wording, language, declarations, and recitals of present circumstance may be included in a draft agreement. No final agreement shall be executed absent approval from the Board of County Commissioners.
03-17-2012, 08:50 AM #34
By DOTTY NIST
Plans for a new South Walton Tourist Development Council (TDC) building took a step forward on March 13 with TDC approval of working terms for the new building.
The proposed location is directly south of the U.S. 331/U.S. 98 intersection on 11.9 acres that are part of the Point Washington State Forest. The working terms are for purposes of negotiation between TDC staff and the Florida Forest Service for use of the acreage, in a process that will culminate with consideration of the proposal by Gov. Rick Scott and his Cabinet.
The cost of the facility has been estimated at $4.5 million
The tourism council approval, which was unanimous, came after considerable input by citizens attending the meeting.
Among the terms approved were that eight acres of the property would be used for construction of a new TDC visitor center, offices and related infrastructure which would “collaboratively serve as a nature center/natured education center, with a goal of enhancing awareness of the unique natural resources and habitats that exist in Walton County…” The terms call for the property to be leased for a period of 50 years at a cost of $1 per year.
For residents, a common criticism was the location, specifically the use of conservation land for the building. Others complained that the project had come too far along without sufficient notice and without the public being properly involved in the decision-making process. Some maintained that a 1999 settlement agreement in connection with the county’s acquisition of the Government and Education Center property in effect barred the 11.9-acre property from being used for this purpose. The council members were asked if alternatives had been considered for the new building.
“Why are you focused like a laser beam on this particular piece of conservation land?” asked Anita Page of the South Walton Community Council. Page asked the council members to instead authorize TDC Executive Director Dawn Moliterno to look at other property on which to locate the building, or to consider retaining the current location.
Moliterno commented that there were a number of “challenges” with the current building. One of those is that it is difficult for tourists entering south Walton County from the north on U.S. 331 to access the building. Since the four-laning of the segment of the highway south of the bay bridge, there is no curb cut on the highway providing for access to the building from U.S. 331.
Council member Maurice Gilbert, who has served on the tourism council for the past 12 years, noted that over that period various sites had been considered for a new building and had been found to be unsuitable. Gilbert maintained that there had been considerable discussion and also public hearings regarding sites that were not selected.
Gilbert said the proposed location was determined to be a “perfect” one because it would allow access not only from the south but from the east and west. He added that there are approximately 22,000 acres in south Walton County that are public forest lands. “This is a small, very strategically located parcel,” he said of the proposed site.
“We do not think the settlement agreement is violated by this,” said TDC attorney Clay Adkinson. He added that in his opinion the use of TDC bed tax funds for construction of the facility falls within allowable uses of the funds per state statutes. The state attorney general has been asked for an opinion to clarify the matter, Adkinson added.
“I personally do not support a brand new TDC center,” commented bed tax collector Eileen McDermott. She recommended that the money that would be used for the building instead go to a cultural or sports center or arena.
Jacquee Markel expressed disappointment that the public had not been asked if this was what they wanted. “This is the people’s forest,” she said. “I don’t want to see a big monument to tourism when I come over that bridge,” she said.
There was a suggestion by one attendee that the use of parcel be mitigated by putting other property into conservation.
Mary Nielson urged the TDC to put off a decision on the working terms due to “significant community objections and issues brought forward,” including the question being examined by the attorney general.
“I don’t think you should do a darn thing today about that parcel today,” she advised.
“We have been talking about this for a very long time,” said TDC member Stephen Hilliard. Hilliard said he was truly sorry if the public had felt “left out” of the process, but that the proposal to use this parcel had been under discussion by the council for over a year.
Hilliard said the TDC members see “attracting and serving” visitors as their mission, and that they believe the proposed location is the best one from which to do that. He also commented on the importance of educating visitors to appreciate south Walton County’s natural features as was envisioned with the new facility.
The current TDC building is on property under a 50-year lease to the county by the Florida Forest Services at the same rate proposed for the new lease. The approved working terms call for the existing site and the building to be transferred to the forest service for offices.
Also approved by unanimous vote at the meeting was an RFP for architectural services for the new facility. Public meetings are to be held locally to obtain input on the proposed building and features to be included with the facility.
Since the TDC is an advisory board to the Walton County Board of County Commissioners (BCC), these approvals were set for consideration by the BCC at its next meeting, which was scheduled for 4 p.m., also on March 13.
03-17-2012, 09:59 AM #35
After hearing from concerned citizens on March 13, the county commissioners put off voting on the working terms for the new TDC building---and scheduled an April 10 public hearing on the issue. This hearing will be part of the 4 p.m. April 10 county commission meeting at the South Walton Annex: http://www.co.walton.fl.us/CivicAlerts.aspx?AID=337
03-17-2012, 01:20 PM #36
03-19-2012, 07:33 PM #37
- Join Date
- Oct 2007
- In the little town with FUN in the middle
Orginal article by Dotty Nist and the DeFuniak Herald Beach Breeze.
Last edited by Alicia Leonard; 03-19-2012 at 07:37 PM. Reason: Giving source article credit.
04-08-2012, 08:33 AM #38
In response to concerns about a lack of public input, residents can weigh in next month on a proposal to build a multimillion-dollar welcome center in Walton County.
The proposed South Walton Discovery Center would be located on 11.9 acres in the Point Washington State Forest south of the intersection of U.S. Highways 98 and 331.
The county’s Tourist Development Council has been pursuing a new welcome center for years since it outgrew its current home on 1.1 acres of state forest land on the northeast corner of the intersection.
See the materials submitted to the County Commission on the proposal. »
The existing center also has become difficult to access since U.S. 331 was widened to four lanes. Drivers headed south on U.S. 331 now have to head east on U.S. 98 for a half mile and make a U-turn to get to the building.
“As a result, our visitation numbers have plummeted,” said Dawn Moliterno, the TDC’s executive director.
Last week, Moliterno asked county commissioners to approve terms for a draft agreement with the Florida Forest Service for the new site.
Commissioner Scott Brannon laid out the terms in a Jan. 24 letter to the Forest Service.
The state would lease the land to the county for 50 years at $1 a year.
In exchange, the county would relinquish the donated state forest land it now uses and give the building, valued at $500,000, to the Forest Service for administrative offices.
The new center, which still is in the conceptual design phase, could cost between $4 million and $6 million, Moliterno said.
The TDC would pay for the center with reserve bed tax dollars that have been set aside for the project.
Commissioners did not grant approval of the terms at their meeting March 13. Instead, they voted to hold a public hearing on the issue on April 10.
Commissioner Kenneth Pridgen requested that the board schedule the hearing in response to several residents’ concerns that a hearing to specifically address the issue had not yet been held.
Last June, commissioners voted unanimously to give the TDC authority to pursue the location, but the resolution was added to the agenda at the meeting and was not advertised to the public.
Anita Page with the South Walton Community Council said after a commission meeting last month that she was concerned a deal for the project was being hammered out without public input.
She said county officials had told her several times that a hearing would be held, and she was surprised to find that so many details had been drafted before one was scheduled.
Moliterno said the TDC Advisory Council has been discussing the proposal for a year-and-a-half. She said council members unanimously approved the working terms at their meeting March 13.
At that meeting, council members were appreciative of residents’ concerns, but felt there had been ample opportunity for public input, she said.
The new headquarters would serve as a visitors center as well as a nature center with boardwalks through the forest, educational kiosks and a connection to the Longleaf Greenway Trail.
The proposal also includes office space and a conference room for TDC staff.
Buildings and parking would take up about eight acres. The rest of the land would be managed to prevent controlled burns from crossing onto the parcel, according to Brannon’s letter.
Moliterno said if commissioners agree to the working terms and give approval for her to seek architectural bids, she can formally begin the process for state approval.
Once agreements have been drafted, they will be brought back before the TDC Advisory Council and county commissioners, she said.
“This is a journey,” she said. “We have a long way to go. This is not the beginning or the end.”
04-08-2012, 08:33 AM #39
At the intersection of Highway 98 and 331, a battle is brewing.
A 12-acre parcel of the 15,399-acre Point Washington State Forest is being considered as the site of the new welcome/Discovery Center for the South Walton Tourist Development Council.
“It’s a real nature center, and we want to put in a concrete parking lot and put up a ‘nature center,’ ” said Bonnie McQuiston of the Walton County Taxpayers Association.
The need for the new building, according to TDC Executive Director Dawn Moliterno, is the result of a building analysis that revealed some problems with the existing TDC facility across the street. Moliterno maintains the TDC has outgrown the existing center and it has also become difficult to access since U.S. 331 was widened to four lanes. Subsequently, the number of visitors to the center has “plummeted.”
“It will allow us to create a visitor center that matches the brand and destination and create an inviting environment,” Moliterno said. “Moreover, it will address the many challenges that came out of the current building analysis. It will also allow us to highlight our many natural assets unique to Walton County like the forest, coastal dune lakes, native habitat and animals such as sea turtles.”
Today, the longleaf pine ecosystem is seen as the sixth most biodiverse ecosystem on the planet, but due to development, only 2 percent is still in existence.
Because of this, Topsail Hill and Point Washington State Forest ranked, by the Florida Land Acquisition and Management Advisory Council, in the top 100 places to be protected in Florida — with Topsail being in the top three and Point Washington ranking at 55. But this is not the first time the forest has created dissension between those who wish to preserve it and those who wish to build on it.
“We have an over 20-year history dealing with issues in Walton County,” said Manley Fuller, president of the Florida Wildlife Federation, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that aims to conserve, preserve, and protect Florida’s natural resources.
Disputes over the land have periodically flared up since 1992, but the source of the strife can be traced to the 1920s, when the St. Joe Paper Company took ownership of the 20,000 acres of longleaf pine ecosystem from Edward Ball.
“It was never real valuable property for them because it was so far from the paper mill,” said Celeste Cobena of the environmental watchdog group Beach to Bay Connection. “It was never really harvested and cut over, and because of that, the longleaf forest basically remained intact.”
The forest became a plat of interest in the 1970s, when the then-18,000 acres was acquired by Emerald Coast Joint Ventures from St. Joe.
The story goes that, years after the acquisition, the group went bankrupt, leaving the land in a state of foreclosure.
But, in what would determine the fate of the forest for future generations, “On May 19, 1992, an auction was held on the steps of the Walton County Courthouse,” said Cobena. “George Wilson, with the Nature Conservancy, stepped up and won the land.”
The Nature Conservancy is a nonprofit conservation organization with satellite offices throughout the world. The conservancy partners with governmental agencies, companies, other nonprofits, and local populations to protect natural resources.
With a price tag of $1.2 million taxpayer dollars, the state took over ownership of the wooded land. And the struggle for its future began.
A history of conflict
The tug of war over nature versus infrastructure culminated in 1997, when there was a heated forum at Butler Elementary. Heated, not just because the air conditioner at the time was out, but also because the over 500 people gathered were incensed that the county wanted to acquire 3,000-plus acres of the forest land for development, not for recreation and conservation.
“Citizen after citizen got up, all with the same message: Don’t sell it! Don’t give it away!” said Cobena. “People were stomping, beating on tables.”
“It was an eight- to 10-year fight,” remembered McQuiston. “It took a lot to save what we have.”
The very next year, the county revised its proposal, cutting the request down to hundreds, rather than thousands, of acres.
“Then (Walton County commissioners) made a proposal for a 420-acre town center in 1998. We filed a lawsuit for that. It had clear conservation value. We lost at that time, but we contended that it would be an unconstitutional disposal of state conservation lands,” said Fuller.
Ultimately, the county government’s request for thousands of acres was whittled down to 420, around 110 usable, and the rest promised as conservation land. This is now the site of the Coastal Branch Library, the Walton County Courthouse Annex, and the South Walton Campus of Northwest Florida State College.
The land again became an issue in 2004, when the South Walton Fire Department pondered trying to run a road through the forest to make speedier rescues. Critics contended that the proposed road was very closer to the actual emergency corridor and would save little time. The plan was ultimately voted down.
And, while McQuiston uses the past tense in saying, “We fought the good fight for many, many years,” the fight continues today.
‘The precedent is huge’
Now, with the South Walton TDC eying a small parcel on which to put their 12,000-square-foot Discovery Center, the gloves are back on. Though the acreage is but a small portion of the thousands of acres of forest, to conservation groups it is significant for what it represents.
“The precedent is huge. Natural resources are what draw the tourists,” said Anita Page of the South Walton Community Council. “Buildings, we’re always going to have. The forest… it’s finite. It’s not going to expand.”
Earthjustice, an environmental law firm connected with the Florida Wildlife Federation, is planning to submit a formal letter, detailing why using a parcel of this land violates the conservation initiative.
“You can’t sell land that was bought with bonded dollars as state conservation land,” said Fuller of the proposed development.
“This preservation land is a promise,” said McQuiston, “to the people of Florida, especially Walton County.”
But for now, those against the land acquisition are waiting for the county’s move.
“We have sued Walton County on multiple occasions, I hope we never have to do it again, but if we have to we will,” said Fuller.
04-11-2012, 06:32 AM #40
TDC Director Dawn Moliterno reviewed the process and how the county has come to the point of planning for moving the TDC Center to south of U.S. 98. After a lengthy time of public input, from a packed house, Commissioner Larry Jones said one aspect he has not heard from is the Forestry Service. Jones made a motion to continue the public hearing to May 8th to allow for the Florida Forest Service to attend.
04-11-2012, 06:43 AM #41
Do people really stop at the center and say "hey, this place looks nice, let's completely change our plans and stay in South Walton"? I have a feeling they were already on their way to a vacation destination somewhere in the area, or would not be heading down 331 or along 98. Putting the TDC center on the south side of 98 will not entice people from our feeder markets to stay here instead of Destin or other Panhandle places- their plans were made before they arrived here, but it is a nice place to pick up maps and info, and the offices are nice.
Bay and Okaloosa counties seem to do just fine without big TDC buildings. If they have them, I have never noticed, and they have so many ways in to their beach areas.
We already have a "nature discovery center". It is called the E. O. Wilson Biophilia center, and it is amazing. It is in the forest. We "discovered" it. ;)
04-11-2012, 08:14 AM #42
However i think the center would mostly be about education for what's here, wildlife, safety, and mostly for businesses to get exposure.
IMHO if just one visitor stops at the center, learns about rip tides, and it saves their life then the tiny bit of forest and the money is worth it! Although i do understand the worry about taking private land and setting a precedence. But I believe the forest service doesn't want that either and the agreement will be made in a way that it will not set a legal or moral precedence.
04-11-2012, 08:26 AM #43
People won't be stopping by the TDC to be educated about riptides and wildlife. If tourists want to learn about stuff like that, they will seek it out- we don't have to move that place to brand new location. There are vacationers who will seek out nature info and facts about an area, and there are those who don't care- they are at the beach on vacay. Locating the TDC in the new location might get a few more people through the door, but only because they pretty much would run right into it.
Spend the dollars on getting good info in vacation rentals, on websites, and in our markets.
04-11-2012, 09:58 AM #44
A few more!? First I am interested in numbers. I had heard some but it was awhile ago. Before the DOT cut off the place there were a lot of visitors and after the number was about 1/10th or less. It's no exaggeration that the place is worthless as a visitor center now but is only offices and a meeting space.
A new center with easy access I'm guessing would get several hundred thousand visitors a year. No people aren't stopping there to get necessarily educated about a rip tide but if they stip there to walk the dog or find a rental and accidentally get educated and don't die in the gulf then thet is worth it to me I agree with Abby.
I really think it can be a win win win if people stop getting huffy (not you Jdarg) and talk to each other. Business people and environmentalists need to work together because one can benefit the other. We should work hard to promote and educate about our amazing resources and do some business at the same time. The great nature we have benefits business and businesses should hug trees. Taking opposite sides is stupid and is cutting of your rose to spite your place.
I know there are people who don't watch public land touched and I respect that but they also need to be reasonable. AT least open your eyes and ears and listen to what forestry has to say.
Ok sorry so long.
04-11-2012, 10:13 AM #45
I understand that the current site is kind of worthless, but I don't think we need a new one disguised as a "discovery center". We need smaller locations at strategic places, at beach accesses, resort communities, etc., which would be a lot cheaper than constructing a whole new center.
Regarding rentals, it is the internet age. Everybody has booked their rentals before they get here, so I doubt any rental discoveries happen except for the random "fly-by-the-seat-of-their-pants" travelers. TDC dollars need to be spent in our vacation markets, when people are making their plans, and spreading out the availability of info about our area by having multiple small locations will reach far more people that one central location.
04-11-2012, 10:42 AM #46IMHO if just one visitor stops at the center, learns about rip tides, and it saves their life then the tiny bit of forest and the money is worth it! Although i do understand the worry about taking private land and setting a precedence. But I believe the forest service doesn't want that either and the agreement will be made in a way that it will not set a legal or moral precedence.
There are many other good places and opportunities for rip tide education. Until all those other avenues have been thoroughly taken advantage of, please don't try to tell me that opposing this new visitor center is akin to condemning someone from drowning in a rip tide, because that is the other logical extension of your argument.
04-11-2012, 12:54 PM #47
04-11-2012, 01:00 PM #48
We are talking about 11 acres out of 20,000+ in South Walton. Give me a break!
04-21-2012, 08:51 AM #49
- Join Date
- Jun 2005
- Eastern Lake, Seagrove Beach
Better PDF version of Settlement Agreement
"The parties recommend that the Division of State Lands within the Department of Environmental Protection complete acquisition of the South Walton County Ecosystem CARL project as rapidly as possible. Furthermore, Walton County commits to support acquisition of all remaining land within the South Walton County Ecosystem CARL project boundary for purposes of conserving it as part of the PointWashington State Forest."
If the county chips away to give this break, there is precedent for more breaks, until the forest is gone. I say, use the land in the town center. Keep the TDC in with the rest of county services. Someone asked to follow the money. One firm benefitting is Preble-Rish, who are all for using the forest. How about getting an alternative design and engineering firm opinion for starters? I'm trying to attach the entire settlement agreement PDF that I received from the plaintiff in the law suit. Hope it works. 1999_Settlement_Agreement.pdf
Last edited by Caroling; 04-21-2012 at 09:19 AM. Reason: fixed text, added better PDF with OCR text versionCaroling, www.wholeo.net
Yes but that is 11 acres out of the of the last remaining 2% of old growth longleaf pine forest in the state of Florida. Thinking of it that way, couldn't we find better solutions? Death by a thousand cuts is what has devastated the land trust already. We have to stop it somewhere. Don't we?What?
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