Ruth Dupont Esser, former co-owner of Avalon Landing and Santa Rosa County Commission candidate for district 4, said "We have to do things differently in the county. We have to work with what we have," she said regarding determining the location of the new Santa Rosa County courthouse. To that end, Esser said she found 200 acres in East Milton, right near the intersection of state road 87 and Interstate 10. She said the owner of the property is former Senator Charles Clary, who served from 1996 to 2006.
She said the land has infrastructure in place and would require little road construction due to its convenient location to these two major roadways. On the two properties currently scheduled for the November ballot, Esser said the jail location in East Milton would be unattractive for the county courthouse and she was worried putting the courthouse on Avalon would cause too many traffic problems.
Esser said she called Clary and suggested he donate 20 acres of his land. She said he would also benefit since new businesses would open to serve courthouse employees, and anyone else going to the judicial site, causing the land to increase in value and grow.
Clary said he had potential commercial interest in the front of the land in question and had the back certified by Gulf Power for manufacturing. He said he had no previous connections to Esser, who called him on the proposal. Since then, he said he contacted County Attorney Angela Jones to discuss a donation or a low price.
“I’m concerned negotiations could change. I want this deal to be a donation and not a sale,” said Esser.
Bob Cole, district 2 county commissioner, as to where Clary's property is located, said he has always preferred East Milton as the location for the future courthouse. Cole said Byron Cotton has made the same offer for the last six years. He also said he preferred putting the courthouse next to the jail, but would be willing to discuss Clary's land with him.
This new addition to the mix of potential properties added to East Milton support for the courthouse, while real estate owners downtown expressed fear about the fact of moving the courthouse would affect their business at the public commission meeting Monday. Members of the public spoke in support of these two areas, but Jerry Couey, speaking before the council, said he had never heard anyone support the Highway 90 property. Carl Hudgens, creator of the political action group Constitution and Coffee, echoed Couey's Highway 90 sentiment, calling it the "worst location." Hudgens said previous to recent meetings, the two main properties in consideration were Highway 90 and the Avalon Boulevard property, "but now citizens are getting involved and asking questions." Esser also expressed support for the Clary proposal as well as Byron Cotton's potential donation. Couey said Santa Rosa County could follow Walton County's example. Walton kept its courthouse's original facade while updating the interior.
"It's easy to say 'it's old and I want something new, " said Couey. Hunter Walker, county administrator, twice said the courthouse is "a sick old building" and said, "I don't know how to keep the courthouse downtown."
Cindea Coulter-Booth, owner of C. Coulter Corporation, who said she's the "owner of the oldest business downtown," said, "Milton is on its uphill climb. The courthouse is a good thing for downtown. It's our core. It needs to stay our core." No one attending the meeting spoke up in support of the Hwy 90 location. However, Andrea McDermot of Navarre said "People will have to use Garcon Point Bridge. I guess that's one way to get people to use that bridge."