Sandestin future murkey amid turmoil Sat, 14 Jun 2014 21:50:13 Sandestin has become a resort destination for the world. But within the high-dollar gated community, where homes sell for as much as $4 million, turmoil roils. Tom Becnel, Sandestin’s most recent owner, fears his vision for his property has been threatened by the Walton County Commission and the powerful Sandestin Owners Association. “For us the immediate future is litigation,” Becnel attorney Dana Matthews said Wednesday. “We’re going to be there by the end of the week.” Recipe for trouble County commissioners sided with homeowners and voted June 7 to declare Sandestin had failed to comply with its state issued Development of Regional Impact designation. By a unanimous 4-0 vote they put a moratorium on future development and ordered Becnel’s company, Sandestin Investments, to submit a Notice of Proposed Change for county consideration. Commissioners acted on a recommendation from the county’s planning department after hearing sworn testimony from several individuals, including Wendy Gray, a community planning expert hired by the SOA. The county staff and planners were highly critical of the atmosphere at the Village of Baytowne Wharf, an entertainment mecca featuring restaurants, shops and amusements. Gray called it a “circus.” Also criticized was development in areas that included land set aside as “open space” for roads and swimming pools. Matthews and those working in Sandestin’s commercial arena maintain the criticisms leveled are off base. “Typical not in my backyard,” Matthews said. Family resort vs. retirement community In defense of his decisions as owner since 2010, Becnel told commissioners he is committed to making Sandestin a family resort. Kitty Whitney, executive director of real estate for Sandestin, and others with ties to commercial development in the resort said the SOA has opposed almost anything Becnel has thus far proposed. The animosity at the resort, Whitney said, stems from the homeowners’ group’s desire to halt any further development and maintain a retirement community. “Their consultants are calling us a circus,” Whitney said. “Their vision is not vision.” Gary Vorbeck and Michelle Anchors, attorneys representing the SOA, said the association’s members are not against all development. But the board of directors, which answers to more than 70 individual homeowners’ associations within Sandestin, holds a fiduciary duty to protect client interests, Vorbeck said. “All we ask from the developer is to follow the law,” he said. “That seems to me to be a reasonable request.” Becnel’s attorney Matthews said the county’s action failed to consider that Becnel, as owner of Sandestin, is vested with state-given rights set down decades ago when the Department of Community Affairs signed off on a DRI. That complicated document allowed developers within the 1,960-acre land areafreedom from local rules, within limits, to create the mixed-use resort originally envisioned. “At the end of the day, when he bought that property Mr. Becnel got rights vested to him extending all the way back to 1976 that the county can’t come in and take away, which is what they’re trying to do,” Matthews said. “Once the state approves it, it’s there for infinity.” But the homeowner’s land use attorney Vorbeck disagrees. “They think they’re vested from everything,” he said. The next move Matthews believes it is the county’s goal to snatch the special DRI designation away and bring Sandestin under the county’s current development code, which would then tighten its grip on development decisions. Walton County Administrator Larry Jones said his staff is still wading through the myriad of issues the commission’s ruling raised. The county is studying both legal and planning ramifications before plotting a way forward, he said. Jones did say the process of making changes to an existing DRI “can reset the baselines” under which development proceeds. “It’s an interesting dilemma that won’t be untangled overnight,” Jones said. “I’m not sure we know what all the implications are.” A HISTORY OF TURMOIL Tom Becnel said when he bought Sandestin four years ago that he intended to improve the relationship between ownership and the resort development’s homeowner’s association and, according to his attorney Dana Matthews, four or five outstanding lawsuits were settled soon after Becnel took over. But it didn’t take too long for the relationship to sour. In January 2012 Becnel organized a town hall meeting to discuss the possibility of opening a casino at Sandestin if Florida law was changed to allow such a thing to happen. Homeowner opposition was loud at times, and Becnel put plans on hold. In July of 2012 Becnel announced plans to build a six-building condominium complex to be called Osprey Pointe. Becnel ultimately purchased the property, a development order was issued, but the county has declined to issue a building permit, Sandestin Executive Director of Real Estate Kitty Whitney said. SOA supported the decision to withhold the permit. l In November 2012, Becnel bought a one-time Coney Island Ferris Wheel and plans were developed to put it in an area at the rear of The Village of Baytowne Wharf. The effort to erect the Ferris wheel, panned by the SOA as a “skyline dominating issue,” lasted about a year before Becnel gave up. In September of 2013 Becnel sued the SOA over a parcel of property on which the homeowners were going to build offices to Sandestin proper. In February of 2014 the SOA prevented Becnel from building a chapel on Sandestin property. “The chapel was on land the SOA owns and the board of directors decided to hold onto the land where the chapel would have been built,” said Homeowner’s Association attorney Michelle Anchors. Matthews said after complaints arose about a lack of parking in Sandestin, Becnel offered to team with the SOA and another Sandestin business entity to build a parking garage. The SOA has rejected the partnership, he said. Anchors declined to discuss the parking garage proposal, citing “confidential settlement negotiations.” Contact Daily News Staff Writer Tom McLaughlin at 850-315-4435 or firstname.lastname@example.org.