September 19, 2023

Walton Gulf Power solar farm opponent wants more farmland protection

DeFUNIAK SPRINGS – A Walton County cattle rancher has persuaded the county government to at least begin examining the potential for protecting the county’s farmland.

David Herring spoke to commissioners on Tuesday to ask them to consider establishing a zoning and land use “stacking district” for at least some of the county’s farmland.

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A superimposed district would mark certain areas of the county for special consideration, which could include limiting the types of development allowed in the demarcated area.

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Herring recently objected to a solar power plant proposed by Gulf Power for more than 850 acres in the northern part of the county, telling commissioners the facility was not a suitable use in an agricultural area. .

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In a related case, commissioners on Tuesday ratified a decision they made last month to deny a development order that would have allowed construction of the Gulf Power facility to continue. Tuesday’s final vote not to approve a development order was the same as the committee’s vote in December, with Commissioners Danny Glidewell, William McCormick and Mike Barker voting to deny the order, and Commissioners Trey Nick and Tony Anderson being dissenters.

In asking commissioners to consider an overlay district, Herring went back to arguments he made during the county government’s review of the Gulf Power installation project. At that time, Gulf Power had purchase options on other properties in Walton County, and the utility committed to expanding its portfolio of solar power generation, but it is unclear what future proposals. the public service could present, where appropriate, to county officials.

On Tuesday, Herring told Commissioners, “As all of you know, large-scale farming was the foundation of Walton County, and we must keep this precious asset.”

Citing national figures from the American Farmland Trust, a nonprofit that works to keep farmers on their land, among other initiatives, Herring told commissioners the United States was losing three acres of farmland every minute.

“We need to seek to identify these areas of our land use,” Herring said. “We have a need to protect this land in our zoning …”

Of particular significance is land classified by farm organizations as “prime farmland” or “significant farmland,” which covers thousands of acres of farmland in Walton County, Herring told commissioners .

“We just need to put them on a map of our county,” Herring said, in order to counter residential sprawl and the potential proliferation of industrial development across the county.

Walton County Council of Commissioners

Herring said there was a need for the county to determine what within its borders are just large tracts of undeveloped property and what are viable agricultural tracts.

Commissioners were unable to take final action on Tuesday at Herring’s request, as such a drastic change to the county’s zoning and land use documents would require extensive public participation and scrutiny before a official action can be taken.

However, as at least a first step towards reviewing Herring’s goal, Walton County Administrator Larry Jones told commissioners that he and other county staff, including staff from the planning department, would meet with Herring to help him refine his ideas into something that might one day come. before the public, and the commission, for action.

Glidewell, who asked county staff to join Herring, perhaps even to the point of developing maps of the proposed farm overlays, then cautioned against any expectation that action could be immediate.

“We need the cards,” said Glidewell, “and we need to make sure the owners involved have a say. That’s right.”

In other cases on Tuesday, commissioners decided to schedule a public hearing on a proposal on the parking enforcement of local attorney Gary Shipman, who has worked on behalf of several communities along County Road 30A, a popular tourist destination along the Gulf of Mexico coast in the southern end of the county.

Shipman is proposing an order that would allow trained and licensed security personnel to use “smart immobilizers” to enforce parking rules on private property. Of particular concern, Shipman said, is the use of golf carts, which he said drivers seem to believe can be parked anywhere.

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Shipman’s proposal would replace the current system – under which private owners must call a tow truck to remove improperly parked cars – with locking devices that could be unlocked on-site by an improperly parked person, after that person has paid a fee. fine through his credit card. The system could not be used on public rights of way, Shipman assured commissioners on Tuesday, and individual private communities would have to formally decide whether to implement the system on their private rights of way.

Even though the digital system would be used by individuals on private property, a county ordinance is needed to allow the practice, County Prosecutor Sidney Noyes explained, because the incapacitation of someone’s vehicle constitutes a seizure of their property. . Under Shipman’s proposal, people whose vehicles are immobilized could later appeal that immobilization.

Shipman told commissioners the process of enforcing digital parking on private property would be a burden on neighborhoods that decided to use it. Locking devices don’t come cheap, Shipman said, and neighborhoods should hire a licensed security service, with people trained in the use of the devices, to implement the system.

No specific time or location has been set Tuesday for a public hearing on the proposal, but county government staff will work towards its implementation, commissioners said on Tuesday.