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Santa Rosa Commissioners Reject Clear-Cutting Ban

Tom Ninestine
WUWF Public Media
Dozens of people attended Tuesday night's meeting to discuss the environmental harm caused by the clear-cutting of trees for new developments and subdivisions.

In the end, property rights won out over the environment and quality of life.

Santa Rosa County commissioners Tuesday night rebuffed several impassioned pleas and the recommendations from the county’s planning and zoning board to stop the clear-cutting of trees and other measures designed to protect the environment. The decision came about seven hours into a meeting in Milton that lasted nearly nine hours. The county’s Land Development Code is expected to be adopted Aug. 19.

The recommendations to the code included having 25% of land on some new developments and subdivisions to remain natural and having a 50-foot barrier of vegetation between wetlands and some new housing developments. Commissioners, by a 4-1 vote, refused to add the 25% requirement to the code. District 5 Commissioner Colten Wright supported the recommendation.

District 3 Commissioner James Calkins, elected in November, said he campaigned in support of property rights, and forcing developers to set aside 25% of their land was tantamount to taking property from them. It also would impact property values, he suggested. Calkins was joined by Commissioners Sam Parker of District 1, Bob Cole of District 2, and Dave Piech of District 4.

Though commissioners opposed the 50-foot vegetative buffer, they supported a 25-foot buffer in a unanimous vote. They also rejected a ban on recreation vehicle parks on Navarre Beach. (A current application for an RV park would not be subject to the new code.)

The decisions prompted Planning and Zoning Board member Sam Mullins to resign immediately. He walked to the public-speaker lectern and said he could not volunteer his time, study the issues and make recommendations only to have the commissioners reject them repeatedly. Mullins’ resignation was the second of the evening. County Administrator Dan Schebler sent an email at 9 p.m. saying he would resign in 90 days.

Among the many speakers Tuesday were members of Save Our Soundside, a grassroots nonprofit that believes the county’s practice of allowing the clear-cutting of trees affects the environment, causing flooding and diminishes the quality of life in the county. As many as 125 people attended the meeting.

Dana Hartigan, president of the group, said the decisions today will affect the future. She also pointed out that a clear-cutting ban was a top concern of county residents responding to a survey.

“If you don’t change (the Land Development Code), there are not going to be any trees left,” she said, adding ignoring the recommendations would put the needs of special interests over the taxpayers.

Sandy Dimick, the Save Our Soundside secretary, said votes against the recommendations “don’t reflect the will of the people.” She added that county residents have been begging and pleading with commissioners to help with chronic flooding. “Do the right thing,” she said.

Local environmental activist Barbara Albrecht, a longtime member of the Bream Fisherman's Association, said commissioners need to connect the dots: Clear-cutting trees leaves the developed land unable to handle stormwater which leads to erosion and runoff spoiling local waterways. By allowing clear-cutting the county has “let the genie out of the bottle.”

“Future generations will be affected by today’s decisions,” she warned.

The recommendations were not without opponents. Ed Carson, a Chumuckla-area general contractor and commercial real estate developer, objected to speakers bashing developers who provide construction jobs and build businesses frequented by county residents.

“We don’t break laws,” Carson said. “If we don’t follow the law, then bust us!”

Following the county’s rejection of the recommendations, Save Our Soundside members were frustrated but vowed to continue to fight clear-cutting.

“They took the easy way out,” Hartigan said.

Tom Ninestine is the managing editor at WUWF. He began August 1, 2019. Tom is a native of Geneva, New York, and a 1983 graduate of King's College in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, where he studied journalism and political science. During a 29-year career in newspapers he worked for the Finger Lakes Times in his hometown; The Daily Item in Sunbury, Pennsylvania; and the Pensacola News Journal from 1998-2016.