SANTA ROSA BEACH — The 16 homeowners’ groups that worked in an unusual collaboration with a real estate developer and the developer’s engineer to dramatically reduce the size of the Bluewater Landing residential project in southern Walton County got news this week of another welcome result of their work.
Bluewater Landing, on 35.19 acres at Retreat Drive off popular beachside Walton County Road 30A, was presented in 2020 by nationwide homebuilder D.R. Horton Inc. as a 186-unit triplex development, with residential units arranged three together in multiple buildings.
Faced with massive adverse community reaction to the project, D.R. Horton Inc. and Innerlight Engineering, the Miramar Beach firm hired by the nationwide residential development company, worked over many months with the homeowners’ groups and eventually trimmed the project to just 31 single-family homes, with a nearly two-acre section set aside for future commercial development.
Additionally, a final plat of the project approved earlier this year by the Walton County Board of Commissioners showed 23 acres of Bluewater Landing — including the shoreline of Draper Lake, a rare coastal dune lake — set aside in a conservation easement.
Conservation easements shield property from development to protect environmental assets.
During early discussions of installing a conservation easement at Bluewater Landing, some homeowners — while happy to see the easement in the D.R. Horton Inc. plan — remained concerned about how the easement would be managed, and pushed for the acreage to be put into the hands of third party to ensure its protection.
At Tuesday’s meeting of the Walton County Board of County Commissioners, Walton County Planning Director Mac Carpenter announced that a third-party caretaker for the conservation acreage had been found.
Among the advocates for that approach was John Harrison, who lives on Draper Lake. He spoke at Tuesday’s commission meeting, expressing a hope that the approach used with Bluewater Landing “can be a framework” to preserve the county’s natural resources.
Walton County, he said, “is a very special place and we need to keep it that way,.”
A year ago, as D.R. Horton Inc. and Innerlight Engineering were working to figure out how to incorporate a third party into the conservation easement, Harrison said the easement was “a very, very big deal to the community.”
Through the work of Steve Hall, the county’s land use attorney, in the days since the commission’s March approval of the Bluewater Landing plat, the county has assigned the acreage to Nokuse Education Inc., a local nonprofit environmental organization that already operates the E.O. Wilson Biophilia Center, an environmental education facility in Freeport.
The cost of the easement was funded by a grant from the St. Joe Foundation, the charitable arm of the St. Joe Company, the developer of a massive residential and commercial project that eventually will cover more than 10,000 acres in the southern end of Walton County. St. Joe has, however, had some environmental issues with its development, recently receiving a warning letter from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection for its activities in wetlands and water quality issues near Inlet Beach.
While Nokuse Education Inc. will own the conservation easement, the long-term care of the acreage has been assigned to the Alabama-Georgia Land Conservancy, under terms of an arrangement put together by the county, D.R. Horton Inc., and local citizen and environmental groups, including the South Walton Community Council, Save30A.org and the 30A Alliance.
“It’s a great win-win-win proposition for the county,” Hall told commissioners Tuesday.
Carpenter, noting the “countless meetings” and the “hundreds of pages of public comment” generated by the Bluewater Landing project, on Tuesday called the work to trim the proposal “a tremendous example of collaboration.”
Walton County Commissioner Tony Anderson, whose district includes the Draper Lake area, took time Tuesday to praise both the public mobilization and the county’s role in changing the Bluewater Landing proposal.
“The public was very, very passionate, and they fought to save as much as they could, and Mac and his staff heard the rallying cry,” Anderson said.