Cattle farmer who opposed Walton solar farm persuades county to protect agricultural land
DeFUNIAK SPRINGS — A Walton County cattle farmer has persuaded the county government to at least begin looking at the potential for protecting agricultural land in the county.
David Herring came to commissioners Tuesday with a request that they consider establishing a zoning and land use "overlay district" for at least some of the county's agricultural land.
An overlay district would mark certain areas of the county for special consideration, which could include limiting the types of development allowed in the delineated area.
Herring was recently active in opposition to a solar electric power generation facility proposed by Gulf Power for more than 850 acres in the northern part of the county, contending then to commissioners that the facility was not a proper use in an agricultural area.
In a related bit of business, 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 proceed. Tuesday's final vote not to approve a development order was the same as the commission's December vote, with Commissioners Danny Glidewell, William McCormick and Mike Barker voting to deny the order, and Commissioners Trey Nick and Tony Anderson dissenting.
In asking commissioners to consider an overlay district, Herring returned to arguments he had made during the county government's consideration of proposed Gulf Power facility. At that time, Gulf Power had some purchase options on other property in Walton County, and the utility is committed to expanding its solar electric generation portfolio, but it is not clear what, if any, future proposals the utility might bring to county officials.
On Tuesday, Herring told commissioners, "As every one of y’all know, large-scale agriculture was the founding of Walton County, and we need to conserve that valuable asset."
Citing nationwide figures from the American Farmland Trust, a nonprofit organization that works to keep farmers on their land, among other initiatives, Herring told commissioners that the United States is losing three acres of farmland each minute.
“We need to look at identifying these areas of our land use,” Herring said. "We have a need for protection of this land in our zoning ... .”
Of particular importance, Herring told commissioners, is land classified by farming organizations as "prime farmland" or "farmland of importance," which covers thousands of acres of agricultural land in Walton County.
“We just need to get them on a map for our county," Herring said, as a means of countering residential sprawl and the potential proliferation of industrial development across the county.
Herring said there is a need for the county to determine what within its borders are just large tracts of undeveloped property and what are viably agricultural tracts.
Commissioners were in no position to take any definitive action Tuesday on Herring's request, because such a sweeping change to the county's zoning and land use documents would require extensive public involvement and review before any official action could be taken.
As at least an initial step toward considering Herring's goal, however, Walton County Administrator Larry Jones told commissioners that he and other county staff members, including planning department personnel, would meet with Herring to help fine-tune his ideas into something that someday could come in front of the public, and the commission, for action.
Glidewell, who asked for county staff members to get with Herring, perhaps even to the point of developing maps of proposed agricultural overlays, went on to caution against any expectations that action could be immediate.
"We need maps," Glidewell said, "and we need to make sure the affected property owners have input. That's just fair."
In other business Tuesday, commissioners decided to schedule a public hearing on a proposal on parking enforcement from local attorney Gary Shipman, who has been working on behalf of several communities along County Road 30A, a popular tourist destination along the Gulf of Mexico coastline in the southern end of the county.
Shipman is proposing an ordinance that would allow trained and licensed security personnel to use "smart immobilization devices" to enforce parking regulations on private property. A particular concern, Shipman said, is the use of golf carts, which he said drivers seem to believe can be parked anywhere.
Shipman's proposal would replace the current system — under which private property owners have to call a tow truck to remove improperly parked cars — with locking devices that could be unlocked on the spot by someone who is improperly parked, after that person pays a fine through their 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 to implement the system on their private rights of way.
Even though the digital system would be employed by private individuals on private property, a county ordinance is needed to allow the practice, explained County Attorney Sidney Noyes, because disabling someone's vehicle constitutes a seizure of their property. As part of Shipman's proposal, individuals whose vehicles are immobilized could later appeal that immobilization.
Shipman told commissioners that the process of digital parking enforcement on private property would be burdensome on the neighborhoods that decided to utilize it. The locking devices aren't cheap, Shipman said, and neighborhoods would have to hire a licensed security service, with people trained in the use of the devices, in order to implement the system.
No specific time or place was set Tuesday for a public hearing on the proposal, but county government staff will be working to set it up, commissioners were told Tuesday.