Save Our Soundside Seeks Reasonable Development In Santa Rosa County
Santa Rosa’s Save Our Soundside wants reasonable development
On Tuesday, Santa Rosa County commissioners meet at 4:30 p.m. in the county administrative complex off U.S. 90 in Milton.
During that public forum, commissioners will hear from the local nonprofit, Save our Soundside, which opposes clear-cutting in the county as well as other development that harms the environment.
Here is a question-and-answer interview with the group’s president, Dara Hartigan. Other officers are Liz Pavelick, communications; Sandy Dimick, secretary; and Kendall Crieghton, treasurer.
Tell us a bit about your group and its mission.
(SOS) started unofficially in 2014, (officially incorporated as a nonprofit in 2018) when I found out that 200 wooded acres on Soundside Drive was up for rezoning before purchase by land developers. I am a second-generation native and I love this area. I knew that the area slated for development had large trees, endangered wildlife, and native plants. This acreage was also the location of natural springs, wetlands, and wetland wildlife/plant habitat. I had already seen many areas on the peninsula be clear-cut for what we call "fill and build" development, and I set out to work to save as much of the area I could. I obtained a copy of the rezoning report and found out that the head of Development Services for Santa Rosa County had suggested to the developers to upzone for more density to “R1A” in this sensitive area. That really lit a fire under me. I went from one end of Soundside Drive to the other with flyers and talked to neighbors and found out that many of the citizens were as upset as I was. Not only that, many had been promised that the acreage around Soundside Drive was to remain a nature preserve and bird sanctuary area (as an inducement to purchase). The mission was clear: We would fight to preserve and protect as much as we could from overdevelopment.
Some of the neighbors here in Midway banded together. We got GPS coordinates for gopher tortoises on the site, took pictures of giant trees, documented Indigo snakes, and wetland flora and fauna, and sent an extensive report to the county and state trying to fight the upzoning. We defeated the increased zoning but it was still zoned R1 and the land would be clear cut for “fill and build” subdivisions. That was the beginning of a nightmare and a hard lesson in subdivision development. We were all so naive. We thought there were tree protections. There were technically none. Only a tree 60 inches wide was considered Heritage, thus protected. Since none existed that large, there was no protection from clear-cutting. We thought wetlands and conservation easements were untouchable. Wrong again. Wetlands were dewatered, springs filled in or put at the bottom of retention ponds and lots cut into conservation easements. We reported a dewatering of wetlands without a permit and were able to get DEP to the site while it was going on. The developers were ordered to stop. This was taking place surreptitiously between the week of Christmas and New Year when hardly anyone was in the DEP office. SOS set up a Facebook, started taking pictures, started reporting, started learning about environmental laws and the county land development code. The public was outraged at developers thumbing their noses at regulations and further outraged at the lack of enforcement of existing codes. We saw the need to revise the Land Development Code and started writing revisions and submitting letters and showing up at county meetings. Citizen support grew.
What concerns you the most about the Land Development Code?
Unlike many other Florida counties, we have no restrictions on clear-cutting and red clay fill. Santa Rosa County requires minimal buffers around wetlands. The type of clear-cutting that is allowed is a scorched-earth process. We are talking about bulldozing huge swaths of land, all trees, all native plants, and the topsoil layer. All wildlife is decimated. Trees and shrubs are piled and burned. Red clay fill is allowed in by hundreds of truckloads, whether you are near a waterway, near white sand, or on white sand. Clay is water-resistant and packs hard, and our native plants don't grow well in it. Water runs off it and carries the discolored sediment into the waterways choking out seagrass beds. Seagrass is the natural hatchery for local sea life.
When an area is clear-cut, it can be decades before new trees reach maturity. Aside from the beauty, shade, and habitat they provide, what are the dangers we face from tree removal — erosion, the loss of root systems that take in water, etc.
We are seeing much more flooding in subdivisions. Trees are vertical reservoirs that soak up water -- and they do it for free! Once we clear-cut them, we have to spend millions of dollars in stormwater runoff systems. Santa Rosa County currently has $120 million in backlogged stormwater projects caused from these types of development practices. Many taxpaying citizens are paying dearly so that a few can make a ton of money. Currently, there are 926 subdivisions approved that will NOT have to comply with the new Land Development Codes should they ever pass. We are seeing heat islands in the subdivisions and the runoff is hotter. Also, it is not good for sea life as it raises the water temperature and gives rise to bacterial growth, red tide and, well I could go on and on. Not to mention the millions of dollars in oyster beds that we are putting in with grant money that won't survive sediment intrusion.
What do commissioners say when confronted with the information?
The number one argument is that of property rights. When a developer is able to assemble enough acreage for a subdivision, they say he should be able to do what he wants with it. I understand property rights, as I see mine dwindling. The citizens' property values decrease with hot, barren, often flooding subdivisions. Repeat flooding is costing citizens more money than anyone realizes. One inch of water in your home can cost you $25,000 to repair. Insurance premiums go up, deductibles go up, construction costs are high and if you are lucky enough to get help from FEMA, you must remain in your home. It doesn't take long if your home floods a few times to be upside down in your investment. Homeowners usually have about 70% of their net worth tied up in their homes. There are citizens who suffer great anxiety during hard rains and hurricane season because they feel trapped.
Developers and environmental advocates are always in a struggle. Can both be compatible in growing Santa Rosa County?
YES, because we are not against development. We advocate for reasonable development. The kind of subdivisions with sidewalks, trees, and parks that maintain their property values. We think it should be incumbent in regulating development to keep the consumer in mind. We need wildlife corridors for birds and other small wildlife along with the requirement that native plants be used in landscaping.
On Tuesday, Save Our Soundside had an awareness event. What was the response from the public?
We had a tremendous outpouring of support. We were covered in the media and are getting to be a household name in Santa Rosa County and people contact us regularly to report incidents of environmental and development concern.
Commissioners meet Tuesday. Are you optimistic your efforts will sway them?
I am always optimistic that people will do the right thing once they are presented with the information. That's what our zoning board did. They saw our presentation and they voted to reinstate the Land Development Code provisions that the commissioners struck during a late-night meeting with the builder coalition. Those provisions include leaving 25% natural areas in large developments (which will stop clear cutting in at least that portion); prohibiting red clay near waterways; and increase buffer widths around wetlands to 50 feet (which is still woefully inadequate). Other counties have these provisions in place, such as Walton County, Leon County and Okaloosa County. We are not asking for anything unreasonable. We are all about being reasonable and looking out for the interests of our neighbors and citizens.