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Santa Rosa Courthouse Location Now Settled, Unity Sought Moving Forward

Santa Rosa County

Santa Rosa County is now in the midst of closing on the purchase of a 19-acre parcel on Avalon Boulevard to be the future site of a new judicial center.

Commissioners were divided over the issue of location, but are now looking to move forward together.

Chairman Rob Williamson set the tone for the work ahead, before entertaining a motion for this month’s final vote to approve the purchase.

“We vote how we believe would be best,” said Williamson, who represents District 4. “And then, whatever the decision is, then we regroup and try to figure out a way to, bottom line, ‘get it done.’”

In the end, board members voted 3-2 to authorize staff to move ahead with buying the property from JDL of Santa Rosa LLC for the discounted price of $850,000. The initial asking price was just over a million dollars.

Credit Sandra Averhart / WUWF Public Media
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The current Santa Rosa Court in downtown Milton was originally built in the 1920's.

District 3 Commissioner Don Salter, who’s now serving a fifth term on the board, supported the JDL property purchase. He says the board’s decision eliminates a major hurdle in their long pursuit of a new county courthouse, which has been debated for nearly two decades.

“(In) 2002, we had a referendum for a one-cent sales tax to build a new courthouse and it failed miserably,” Salter said. “And, then two other times we had a referendum to build a courthouse with a one-cent sales tax. Each and every time, the need for the courthouse got lost; it got tangled up in location.”

Just in the past three years, commissioners have considered numerous alternatives, voting in favor of a site adjacent to the current courthouse location and later opting to remove downtown Milton from consideration altogether.

By this summer, board members agreed to take a closer look at the JDL property.

“The future of this county, central county, is along that new four-lane highway on Avalon Boulevard,” said Salter, who supported the site in part because it matched the results of a recent demographics study and because the Santa  Rosa County Chamber of Commerce is getting ready to build a new building there.

“So, you’ve got four lanes. It’s the best access for the citizens of Gulf Breeze, Tiger Point, Navarre, Milton, Pace, Jay; Avalon Boulevard is where it should go.”

“I was not in favor it,” said District 5 Commissioner Lane Lynchard. “But, at this point, the Board has made a decision and is moving ahead with the purchase. So, hopefully, we’ll be able to rally around one site and come together as a board.”

Lynchard joined Chairman Williamson in voting against the JDL location. He supported another site of mostly county-owned property off Avalon Boulevard, while Williamson preferred not to take the JDL property off the tax rolls.

Credit Sandra Averhart / WUWF Public Media
WUWF Public Media
Rae Parrish and her son-in-law Wade Hatten discuss the new location and funding for a future Santa Rosa County courthouse.

Checking the pulse of voters, “I’m good with the location, but I wish they’d been a little spend-thrifty with my money,” said Wade Hatten, a pipe liner, who was coming out of the current Santa Rosa courthouse with his mother-in-law Rae Parrish.

“Well, I like the location verses the downtown location,” Parrish added. “I think it’s more convenient for the residents. And, from what I’ve heard, the cost of the property wasn’t an extreme cost, even though they could have gotten properties that were cheaper. But, I do like the location.”

Now that location appears to be a done deal and is off the table, the focus turns to funding. While Hatten wants to just get it done and over with, Parrish is leaning toward one more referendum.

“I really think it should funded, hopefully by a majority of the voters,” said Parrish. Asked if she would go for a half-cent sales tax to pay for a new courthouse, she responded, “Yes, I would.”

This is just what commissioners want to hear. After last year’s narrow defeat of a half-cent sales tax to pay for a new courthouse, Commissioner Lynchard believes they’re getting close to winning the voters over.

“If we can come together as a board and adequately set forth the need for the courthouse, then the fact that again hopefully we can be unified in our approach and our message will convince people that this is the right move for the county,” Lynchard said.

“I think one of the good things that the citizens of Santa Rosa County did last year was to approve a half-cent sales tax for infrastructure, roads and drainage,” added Salter.

He made it clear that board members are keenly aware that how they handle the $35 million dollars in revenue generated by that half-cent sales tax for roads and infrastructure will be key.

“And, I hope with that success, that will show the citizens that we’re efficient and that we can be trusted in doing what we say we’re gonna do.”

Salter believes that gaining the public trust will play a major role in the next for a half-cent sales tax for the courthouse.

After officially closing on the JDL property, Santa Rosa Commissioners will focus on preliminary planning and design.

The next referendum on courthouse funding is likely to occur in 2018.

Sandra Averhart has been News Director at WUWF since 1996. Her first job in broadcasting was with (then) Pensacola radio station WOWW107-FM, where she worked 11 years. Sandra, who is a native of Pensacola, earned her B.S. in Communication from Florida State University.