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Author: Ken Garner

Recount – not runoff – could decide Santa Rosa County Commission District 2 election

Almost 48 hours after polls closed Tuesday, it’s still unclear who won Santa Rosa County’s District 2 Board of County Commissioners seat. 

One thing is clear – voters will know who won before November.

The race is headed to a recount 8 a.m. Saturday expected to last most of the day. The results will be updated on the Santa Rosa County Supervisor of Elections website.

County commission races are decided by winning a “plurality” – the most votes – of votes cast. A runoff election is held in races decided by majority vote when no candidate earns more than 50 percent of the votes cast.

Kerry Smith led Jeff Ates IV by 58 votes – 7,936 to 7,878 – of the votes counted election night. But those totals don’t include provisional ballots.

Voters whose eligibility can’t be verified at their polling site may complete a provisional ballot that are not scanned into the vote tabulation machine. Provisional ballots are placed in secure envelopes and delivered to the Supervisor of Elections to be verified and counted later.

Santa Rosa County Elections Supervisor Tappie Villane and her staff have processed provisional ballots and will add them to the candidates’ totals. The county’s Canvassing Board met at 5 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 25, to review and certify the county’s election results. Once certified, the results will be forwarded to the Florida Secretary of State’s office.

If the number of votes separating candidates is less than one half of one percent – 0.005 – state law requires a machine recount of the vote. If that recount results in a difference of less than one quarter of one percent — .0025 – state law requires a “manual” recount of the vote.

Villane said elections officials do not retabulate every ballot by hand. Instead, officials verify ballots marked inexactly to ensure the vote is credited to the correct candidate. If the officials can’t determine the voter’s intent, the ballot is disqualified.

Villane said she won’t know whether a recount is required until the provisional votes are counted and the election results are properly certified.

Members of the Santa Rosa County Canvassing Board are Villane, County Judge Tony Giraud and County Commissioner Colten Wright. Circuit Judge J. Scott Duncan and County Commissioner Sam Parker are alternates.

Jubilee developer sets third town hall meeting

Neighbors of the proposed Jubilee project northeast of Pace still have questions about the master-planned community, and some are spreading misinformation, developer Ron Reeser told the Press Gazette Aug. 24.

“We’re going to keep trying to educate people about the benefits of a CDD for the entire area,” said Reeser, managing partner of The Eagle Group.

“There are still people out there saying things that just aren’t true. We’ll keep trying to set the record straight.”

The development team has scheduled a third “town hall” meeting at 6 p.m. Sept. 20 in the County Commission Board Room, 6495 Caroline St., Milton, to discuss the CDD application with area residents. It previously held meetings on August 8 and 9 in Pace. The meeting is open to the public but is not an official county function.

The Santa Rosa County Commission will discuss Jubilee’s application a day earlier, at its Sept. 19 Committee of the Whole meeting, and will act on the application at its Sept. 22 regular meeting. Both county meetings begin at 9 a.m. and are open to the public.

If the county approves Jubilee’s CDD application, it will be forwarded to the state for further action.
Meanwhile, the county will consider Reeser’s application to rezone more than 2,700 acres of property from AG-RR (agricultural rural residential) – which restricts development to one dwelling unit per acre – to TC-1 (town center core).

According to the Santa Rosa County Land Development Code, the town center core zone provides “a mixed-use commercial and residential district with a maximum residential density of 10 dwelling units per acre. This district shall be characterized by small-scale commercial development and varied architecture.”

Because there has been such public interest in the Jubilee project, staff tentatively plans to schedule special meetings of the Zoning Board and county commission to consider the rezoning request, according to county Development Services Director Shawn Ward.

The Zoning Board, comprised of 10 volunteers appointed by county commissioners, is tentatively scheduled to hear the request at 6 p.m. Sept. 27. That board will vote to recommend approving or denying the request; the county commission will make the final decision at a special meeting tentatively scheduled for 5 p.m. Oct. 18. The public will be able to comment at both hearings.

Because of the project’s size, depending on the outcome of the second hearing, the rezoning and future land-use amendments may be forwarded to the Florida Department of Economic Opportunities and other state agencies for review. The state agencies would have 30 days to review the amendment and provide comments to the county. A third public hearing would be scheduled in 2023, if necessary.

Reeser said he plans to host more town hall meetings to discuss the rezoning requests, although the dates and times haven’t been determined.

The Eagle Group has been working to create the 2,700-acre, 7,500-home Jubilee community between Luther Fowler and Willard Norris roads since 2008.

Instead of simply building as many homes as the county will allow on the property, Reeser’s vision for Jubilee is for a village, including a village center complete with a school, medical services, shops, and entertainment, as well as several distinct neighborhoods to serve different housing needs, all surrounded by parks, trails and ponds.

The Florida Legislature created CDDs in 1980 to encourage developers, Reeser explained at the first town hall meeting, Aug. 8 at Gather at Alyssa’s in Pace. When an application for a community development district is approved, a lender can issue state-backed bonds, the proceeds of which provide the developer large sums of money to invest in building the project.

Residents and businesses who buy property in the district pay a fee based on their property’s size and use to help repay the bond debt; Reeser said the CDD fees are comparable to homeowner’s association fees charged in many developments. The fees are collected with the owners’ property taxes.

The bond funds can be used to improve property adjoining the development, Reeser said, adding that The Eagle Group plans to make road and stormwater improvements that will help area residents as well as Jubilee residents.

“Humans have been organizing communities for thousands of years; we know what works,” Reeser said. “And what worked (in the United States) was what we had before World War II: inclusive communities built on grid patterns where people can get to goods and services without having to travel on just one road.”

The Jubilee community will follow that model.

“That’s smart growth. We want to do stuff that works,” Reeser said.

Residents remain skeptical of Jubilee CDD plans

“Now, would you rather have a CDD or not?” Reeser asked after explaining how the state-backed financing tool could benefit the county.

His answer was a chorus of “Nos” and groans.

“Why not?” Reeser asked. “You can’t stop (growth). If you can’t stop it, you need to have the very best development plan available.”

One woman, who identified herself only as Renee, spoke for many of the 70 or so residents at the meeting when she said she didn’t want more growth in the rapidly growing area. Jubilee is expected to have about 7,000 homes when completed.

“Do we get to vote you out?” she asked. “If we don’t want you, will you go?”
Reeser answered quickly and plainly: “No. You can’t stop it, because this is America, and we have property rights.”

The Florida Legislature created CDDs in 1980 to encourage developers, Reeser said. When an application for a community development district is approved, a lender can issue state-backed bonds to give the developer large sums of money to invest building the CDD and amenities. Residents and businesses who buy property in the district pay a fee based on their property’s size and use to help repay the bond debt.

The fees are collected with the owners’ property taxes.

Creating a CDD gives developers control to manage and finance infrastructure, including water management, sewer and wastewater management, bridges, roads, public transportation, conservation areas, recreational parks, school buildings and other assets.

“The CDD’s motto is ‘growth paying for growth,’” Reeser said, explaining that the bond funds would help The Eagle Group fix stormwater drainage problems and make improvements to Luther Fowler and Willard Norris roads adjoining the Jubilee development as well as within its boundaries.

“It’s exactly what everybody’s been asking for,” he added. “We’re building infrastructure before putting in homes.”

Plans call for the Jubilee CDD to include almost 1,300 acres of greenspace, ponds and wetlands, with more than 100 parks, more than 100 lakes and fishing ponds, and more than 20 miles of trails. It will include a mixed-use “village center” and a major north-south thruway connecting Luther Fowler and Willard Norris roads.

CDDs are governed by a board of directors, originally appointed by the developer but eventually comprised by residents elected by their neighbors in the district. The board must comply with a development plan filed with the state and, because the state backs the bonds, the district must abide by state “sunshine” laws and the district’s amenities must be available to everyone, not just residents.

“I can’t come fish in your pond without permission,” Reeser told resident Laura Fowler, a frequent critic of increased development in the county’s rural areas, “but you can come and fish in any of my ponds.”

Sherry Chapman, another resident, told Reeser the amenities won’t satisfy the project’s neighbors.
Area growth is “ruining everybody’s way of life,” she said.

The Santa Rosa County Board of County Commissioners was scheduled to vote on The Eagle Group’s CDD application for Jubilee at today’s regular meeting, but at its July 28 meeting it had the item removed from future agendas until Reeser holds at least three meetings with residents to discuss the project.

Reeser quickly scheduled meetings Monday and Tuesday to explain the CDD and told residents he planned to schedule at least three more town halls before the county hears the zoning requests. The Development Services Department had not scheduled any hearings for The Eagle Group at the Press Gazette’s deadline.

Commissioners to oppose proposed Interstate 10 toll in Mobile, Ala.

A day earlier, the Mobile and Eastern Shore Metropolitan Planning Organizations added the Alabama Department of Transportation project to their respective long- and short-range plans, including the Transportation Improvement Plan, which enables federal money to be spent on the project.

Edwin Perry, the ALDOT Mobile River Bridge and Bayway project engineer, said the state will only levy the toll for use of the new infrastructure – which will replace an old segment of Interstate 10 – until all construction debt is paid.

“Anyone who doesn’t want to pay the toll can still take the free route across the causeway and under the river using the Wallace Tunnel,” he said. To take that route, drivers traveling on I-10 would have to detour onto U.S. Highway 90/98 and return to the interstate on the other side of the river.

Wright and his commission colleagues said drivers shouldn’t have to leave the Interstate to avoid the toll.

“Generally speaking, I have no problem with tolls and consumption taxes, I think that’s typically a more fair way to tax,” Wright said. “If you were looking at a bridge that was an alternate route, I wouldn’t have a problem with the tax. But I take great issue with placing a tax on a major interstate thoroughfare.”

Commissioner James Calkins agreed.

“Interstates should not be tolled. Period. That’s the roads that we should be able to use to get across the nation,” he said, adding that taxpayers often ask themselves “Well, where is our tax money going if we’re paying a toll to use the same road that our tax money is supposed to pay for?”

Commissioner Dave Piech echoed Wright and Calkins.

“If they were designing a road that gave you an alternate choice and you could pay and go that way or stay on the interstate, that’s a different story, but to put a toll on that major interstate through the Gulf? No,” he said.

Commissioner Bob Cole asked Wright to draft a letter to the boards of commissioners of Baldwin and Mobile counties in Alabama to register Santa Rosa County’s objection to the proposed toll.

The project originally was approved by the Eastern Shore MPO in 2019 but withdrawn amid criticism of a proposed $6 one-way toll assessed on Wallace Tunnel, which serves the existing I-10.

Under the newest plan, all existing infrastructure – the Wallace and Bankhead Tunnels, the Africatown USA bridge and the Spanish Fort Causeway – would be toll-free. Only new infrastructure – a 215-foot-tall Mobile River Bridge and the 7.5-mile new Bayway – would be assessed a toll. Drivers with an ALGO Pass will pay a $2.50 one-way toll; those without an ALGO Pass will pay $5.50. A $40 monthly discount would be available to regular users.

Matt Ericksen, chief engineer of ALDOT’s Southwest Region, said in published reports that construction should begin late next year and be completed in 2028.

School board navigates busing changes

As of Thursday, July 28, the district had received 199 inquiries from parents with questions or concerns about their children’s bus stop, Assistant Superintendent for Administrative Services Joey Harrell said at the school board’s meeting that night, adding that 170 already had been resolved by staff.

“Some issues were resolved with a phone call and a staff member to listen and answer their questions,” Harrell said. “For some, we went out to see parents’ concerns, and we’ve changed some bus stops because of their suggestions.
“That’s what we’re trying to do, we’re trying to solve these problems.”

Superintendent Karen Barber said not all of the inquiries expressed complaints or concerns; some simply notified the district that a family had moved to a new address. Still, she said she was proud of staff’s efforts to help families.

“Parents have been so appreciative that we’re investigating stops,” she said. “Some are making recommendations, showing us better places to locate stops, and we’re looking at that.
“It’s just another example of how our parents are our partners.”

Harrell said that the district, and most area districts, have struggled in recent years to hire enough bus drivers and monitors and support staff. During and after the COVID-19 pandemic, it became even more difficult, prompting the district’s route changes.

In 2019, the district had 6,486 bus stops, Harrell said. He said he expects to have between 3,000 and 3,200 stops this school year.

He reminded school board members that the state does not require schools to provide bus service to children within a 2-mile radius of their school; Santa Rosa always has and will continue to provide bus service to those students, even though the state does not provide transportation funding for those riders.

Harrell also told the board the state requires bus stops be no further than 1.5 miles from students’ homes (except in specific circumstances).

“We don’t have any stops that far apart, and we’re not suggesting we do that,” he said. “I don’t think it’s very smart.”

The district revealed its new transportation plan in May. Students from Kindergarten through fifth grade could walk up to a half-mile to their bus stop, while students in sixth through 12th grades could walk up to a mile to their stop.

A parent or guardian must meet Kindergarten students at their bus stops in the afternoon. There will be no change to Exceptional Student Education students, whose transportation is dictated by their Individual Educational Plans (IEPs). Not all students will walk the maximum distance to or from their bus stops.

Most students were picked up and dropped off at their homes until 2009, when the district set a maximum distance between home and bus stop of 400 feet for children in first through fifth grades and 1,000 feet for students in sixth through 12th grades; Kindergarten students continued to receive door-to-door service.

The district expects the changes to improve on-time arrivals to 95 percent (up from about 75 percent last year), reducing missed instructional time, the number of miles driven, and fuel costs.

As routes are adjusted, Harrell said, new postcards will be sent out and staff will continue to provide the best possible service.

“This will not end the day that school starts,” he said.

Council selects sidewalk projects

“The idea for us was to fill in some of the gaps” in the existing sidewalk network, Planning Director Tim Milstead told the council at its July 21 Committee of the Whole meeting. “If there are any other segments that you know of, let us know and we can get it added.”

Staff identified 11 potential sidewalk projects for council’s consideration but removed the two largest – 3,438 feet on Broad Street between Munson Highway and Berryhill Road and 2,895 feet along Berryhill Road between Glover Lane and Dogwood Drive – because those sections are on roads maintained by Santa Rosa County. Milstead said staff is asking the county to share the cost of those sidewalk projects.

A third project, 860 feet of Berryhill Road Stewart and Alabama streets, also was removed because it was budgeted for the current fiscal year and will be completed in the coming weeks.

Milstead said the city could afford seven of the eight remaining projects.

Given the choice of building 1,016 feet of sidewalk on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive or Mary Drive between Elva and Alice streets, Councilwoman Shari Sebastiao recommended doing Mary Drive first because it borders Lucille Johnson Park, which the city has been refurbishing.

“We should work on that, since it will go in line with getting the park up and running,” she said, “and it would just look better.”

Councilman Casey Powell agreed.

“We have the park there that we’re putting the work into,” he said, “and having the sidewalk there potentially would be of more use especially for the children traveling back and forth to that park.”

The council voted 5-0 to forward the 2023 sidewalk plan to its Aug. 1 Executive Committee meeting. Councilmen Matt Jarrett and Jeff Snow were absent, and Powell, presiding over the meeting as mayor pro tem, did not vote.

Milton to rename football field for long-time volunteer ‘Coach Sam’

“I have been coaching a long time and seeing former players’ children playing gives you the ‘grandfather’ view,” Samuel said. “The greatest accomplishment I have is seeing former players growing up to be responsible adults.”

Milton Recreation and Parks Director John Norton is a regular witness of Samuel’s commitment.

“Coach Sam has been a constant here for the city of Milton when it comes to youth sports,” Norton said. “There have been years where he has coached multiple basketball teams because of the kids and the need we had with our program.

“On July 30th, we are excited and very proud we are able to honor a man who has dedicated so much of his time to the youth of Milton as well as our community as a whole.”

Samuel is from Columbia, S.C., but arrived at Naval Air Station Whiting Field still a teenager in 1974. He met his wife, Olivia, in Milton, and, when the Navy transitioned to civilian workers to maintain its training aircraft, took a job as an airframe- and powerplant-certified mechanic with the new defense contractor. He still works at Whiting Field.

As his family grew – the Samuels had two sons and six daughters – so did Coach Sam’s ties to the community. In 1987, he became a dean at Mt. Pilgrim Baptist Church. Eventually, he became associate pastor at James Street Baptist Church, and held that post for 20 years. Church leaders named him pastor after Pastor Emeritus Warren Gilmore retired two years ago.

“It’s about servitude,” Samuel said of his drive to help not only his children and grandchildren, but as many children – and as many people – as he can with the time and resources he’s given. “It’s about serving God and serving people.”

Coach Sam seemed a little embarrassed by the city’s gesture.

“That’s something (city staff) did,” he said. “It’s a blessing; usually you’ve got to be dead to get something named after you.”

Following the dedication on July 30th, the city will be hosting a Family Fun Day with water slides and food trucks until 3 p.m.  Parents will need to sign a waiver for their child to enjoy the water slides. For more information, call Bill Gamblin at 850-983-5466 or email him at

Commissioners frustrated by booming bear population

“They have yet to give me a long-term plan they have for this,” Cole continued.

Derick Games, who lives on Millbend Place between Gulf Breeze and Navarre, is the latest resident to ask commissioners to do something about the county’s growing bear population.

“We’ve got a bear problem down in the Midway area right now, especially around the Shadow Lake subdivision,” he said. “We’ve got a couple of large black bears; my wife came within four or five feet of one who’s taller than me scratching a big pine tree in our backyard.”

Games reported the sighting to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) “just to let them know” but said he’s worried that more bears mean more opportunities for dangerous encounters.

“There’s going to be an animal or a kid or a person attacked. We need to address that issue before that happens,” Games said. He suggested that clearing property for development is creating more bear encounters because “we’re taking their land.”
Commissioner Colten Wright, who represents the Gulf Breeze area, disagreed.
“It’s not an issue of us taking their land; FWC and scientists will even tell you, the population of black bears has more than quadrupled in the last two decades in the Panhandle,” Wright said. “It’s frankly a matter of, we are an easy source of food for the bears. FWC will tell you that they’re just looking for a ‘drive-thru;’ they just want an easy meal. Unfortunately, that’s the situation we’re in.”

Cole and Wright both said the commission can’t do anything that would violate the state’s wildlife conservation policies, and both expressed their frustration and suggested solutions.

“I think that the state could do a better job of helping us,” Wright said. “At the county, our hands are pretty much tied on how to deal with bears. I would appreciate the state’s help with it. I think we should do something to relocate and control the population.”

Cole said wildlife officials have told him rangers can’t relocate bears to regions outside Florida. Instead, he offered a more final solution.

“It’s time for the state legislature to instruct FWC to start issuing game tags,” Cole said, referring to a controlled hunt to reduce the bear population. “A lot of folks love animals, but they equate bears to Yogi or Teddy or some bears that we see on cartoons or in nature that are friendly, but the truth is, overpopulation of any species is not good for the species.”

He reminded the commission that the state reinstated alligator hunts when the large reptiles’ population began to create concern.

“A few years ago, they started issuing gator tags again,” he said. “In my opinion, it’s time to start issuing some bear tags.”

Cole thanked Games for raising the issue again and encouraged residents to share their concerns with state representatives and senators.

“Perhaps one day the state legislature will hear this and address this problem. They just keep passing the buck to us, the citizens, to keep rattling those pans. Maybe we need to rattle some pans in Tallahassee.”

County prepares to move into new courthouse

Construction on the new courthouse began in November 2019; the county expects to move into the facility by September. Residents can tour the building after a ribbon-cutting ceremony at 10 a.m. Wednesday, Aug. 17.

An appraisal completed earlier this year estimated the old courthouse property at 6865 Caroline Street – building and land – is worth about $1.3 million, County Administrator DeVann Cook said, adding that the county commission will begin discussing the property’s future later this year. County staff currently are reviewing bids to remove the modular buildings behind the courthouse.

“We’re waiting to give them better dates,” Cole said of that contract, explaining that the county can’t remove the modular buildings until court staff have moved into their new offices. “We need them to be a little flexible.”

The county owns the courthouse, but it holds special meaning for the City of Milton – the county seat – and its residents. City Manager Randy Jorgensen last year asked the county to create a team of experts in civil engineering, architecture, real estate development, and history to study the building and make recommendations for its future, but that hasn’t happened.

The courthouse’s future will play a leading role in shaping the future of Milton’s downtown. The Milton and Bagdad Riverfront Master Plan, passed in 2015, is guiding the cities’ efforts to make the Blackwater’s western shore a vibrant shopping and entertainment district. The plan imagines a new courthouse rising behind the existing building and continuing its role as a linchpin for the historic waterfront area.

“It’s beginning to show its age,” Milton Planning Director Tim Milstead said of the plan with a rueful smile. He said the county’s leadership transition, from former County Administrator Dan Shebler – who resigned unexpectedly last summer – to Cook, who served as interim administrator between August and February, set back planning for the courthouse’s future.

Jorgensen told commissioners in 2021 that he believes the building’s core retains “some intrinsic value” that his proposed team of experts could determine.

If building inspectors deem the courthouse fit, it could become office or retail space. If not, the county could demolish.

The county commission will decide the building’s future, Milstead said.

“It’s a county building; it’s up to them.”

The county outgrew the old courthouse, built in 1927, decades ago.

A 2003 inspection identified structural issues, the original construction created challenges complying with Americans with Disabilities Acts standards, small courtrooms and hallways created security concerns and the building’s environmental controls made it an uncomfortable workplace.

Twice voters defeated sales tax initiatives to pay to replace the courthouse, forcing the county to take out a $35 million loan and dip into reserves to fund the new judicial facility.

Mayor vetoes proposed charter amendment

But, despite the mayor’s veto threat, the city council voted 6-2 for a ballot referendum asking voters to change the requirement to just one year, the same residency requirement for city council candidates.

Lindsay has consistently opposed the proposal, arguing that it neglects the mayor’s unique role.

“I have argued to the council – my argument was not accepted – that the mayor should continue to have a three-year residency requirement because your mayor is your official head of the city for all ceremonial purposes,” Lindsay said at the July 12 meeting. “Your mayor is your advocate before whatever authority might be a funding source, such as the State of Florida or (Santa Rosa County) …So, the more time (a candidate has lived) in the city, I think, the better (the candidate is) able to be an advocate.

“So, that’s my argument; the council did not agree,” she continued. “That’s one reason why I would not want people to support the referendum, frankly.”

Councilman Jeff Snow, who introduced the proposed change, said he wouldn’t mind if the requirement were higher if the requirement was the same for mayoral and council candidates.

“I just think council and mayor should have the same standard, whether it’s one year, three years, that’s irrelevant,” Snow said. “But the voters, if they choose to vote to leave it, that’s OK – we’re putting this in the voter’s hands.”

Councilmembers Robert Leek and Shannon Rice voted against the ordinance that would have placed the referendum on the 2022 ballot.

Lindsay warned the council before it voted that she would veto the ordinance unless the council left the residency requirement unchanged.

“I have asked the city attorney to make a change to the way it’s worded right now, and I would ask council to acknowledge that their motion and second and voting accepts this change, otherwise I’m going to have to veto it,” she said.

After a six-hour meeting, Lindsay unceremoniously wrote “vetoed” on the approved ordinance rather than sign it into law.

According to Section 3-4 of the city’s charter, the council “shall reconsider the ordinance or any part of the ordinance which has been vetoed at the next meeting of the city council. If the city council shall vote to pass the ordinance by a two-thirds vote of the members present, it shall become law.”

With eight members, the council would need six votes to override the mayor’s veto.

In related actions, the council approved without objection an ordinance amending the city’s election qualifying process to ensure it is complete before the Santa Rosa County Elections Office ballot deadline.

Candidates can qualify for the city’s 2022 elections Aug. 8-12. The council will set future qualifying periods by ordinance.

The council also heard the first reading of an ordinance defining election-related terms and clarifying permissible campaign practices. That ordinance will not be effective until a second public hearing and approval by the city council at the Aug. 9 council meeting.

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