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Author: Ken Garner

FDOT preparing to begin U.S. 90 design project

The Florida Legislature budgeted $2.75 million in this year’s budget to design the widening project. FDOT selected a bid from Hanson Professional Services Inc. on Nov. 28 and is expected to complete contract negotiations by the end of January, Satter said. Design work can begin as soon as the contract is approved. Hanson is an Illinois-based engineering, planning and “allied services” firm, with offices nationwide, including Tallahassee.

Satter emphasized that FDOT will ensure all stakeholders – public officials, residents, businessowners, commuters and anyone with an interest in downtown Milton – will have multiple opportunities to review and comment on design plans.

FDOT’s plan to widen Caroline Street between Stewart Street and Ward Basin Road is part of a larger project to increase capacity on U.S. 90 between Scenic Highway in Pensacola and U.S. 87 South east of Milton.

The widening project has been a divisive issue in city politics for years; in 2019, the city council approved a resolution opposing FDOT’s plan and asking it to find an alternative route. Over the past year, the council tried unsuccessfully to convince the Florida-Alabama Transportation Planning Organization, which helps set the state’s transportation priorities, to remove the project from FDOT’s Five-Year Work Plan.

With four newly elected councilmembers, Mayor Heather Lindsay offered a draft resolution meant to signal the city’s willingness to cooperate with FDOT to design the project. The draft read, in part, that “the government of the City of Milton supports the design and construction of improvements to Highway 90, including through Downtown Milton.” The resolution also declares the city’s desire to work with the state during the project’s design phase; to protect the Imogene Theatre during the project; and to enforce a 25 mile-per-hour speed limit through its historic downtown.

“I want us to be able to reach a consensus that is collaborative with FDOT so that we have the best chance to be heard by them and not being considered an obstructive force,” Lindsay said. “I don’t want us to be a negative force in this because they’ll be less inclined to take us into account.”

But some councilmembers said the resolution should reflect the city’s desire to participate in the project’s design without implying they support widening the highway through downtown.

“I think we can come up with something we can all agree on,” Councilmember Jeff Snow said. “We do want what’s best for Milton.”

The new council voted unanimously to consider a revised version of the resolution at the Tuesday, Jan. 3, executive committee meeting.

SRC Commission prepares to debut new forum format

The commission will convene at 4:30 p.m. Monday, Jan. 9, for its first planning meeting of the new year. Anyone who wishes to address the commission will be asked to sign up before 4:30 p.m., when the speakers’ sheet will be given to Wright and the public forum will begin. Each speaker will be limited to four minutes, as they have been in the past. Wright will stop the forum at 5:30 p.m. and the agenda will begin with an invocation and the Pledge of Allegiance.

Jerry Couey of Milton questioned whether the commission would give the public forum the same attention if it occurs before the meeting is called to order.

Wright said he would make sure of it.

“I’ll make this statement now: I expect all commissioners to be here. Every elected member of this board should be here at public forum,” Wright said. “That’s an expectation I’ll go ahead and set right now on the record. I think that’s reasonable; I think that’s the right thing to do, I think if the public is going to be here to speak, we need to be here to listen.”

Wright, elected chairman at the board’s organizational meeting in November, announced at the commission’s Dec. 5 planning meeting that he had moved public forum from early in the meeting to the last item on the agenda to help keep public hearings and other county business on track. Commissioner James Calkins objected and asked Wright to hear residents’ thoughts on moving public forum.

“I believe if you want to hear from the people, we will lose some people by moving (public forum) to the end, especially when we have a long agenda,” Calkins said. “I would like to hear from the people here today about how they feel about it being moved to the end.”

Several residents – all of whom regularly speak during public forum – objected to the change, one suggesting Wright was trying to discourage residents from addressing the commission, another declaring the commissioners are duty-bound to listen to residents’ concerns and others complaining about the inconvenience of waiting while the commission conducts its scheduled business.

After Wright announced his compromise at the Dec. 8 meeting, Debbie Gunnoe of Navarre asked whether her comments during public forum still would be recorded for the public record.

“That’s my purpose for coming here for public forum – for what I call the people’s forum, not public forum,” she said. “I come here to make sure that it’s in the Sunshine, that I have all five commissioners here, that I can speak what I have to say, that I can get a response…if we have questions, will we also have the rest of the staff here so that we can get our questions answered?”

Wright assured her that the new format “is no different…other than we have a set time for it.”

FPL presents ‘solar tree’ at Carpenter’s Park

“This installation will be a tremendous asset in helping residents learn more about clean, safe, sustainable energy,” City Manager Randy Jorgenson said Dec. 6 after accepting the solar tree’s remote control from J.T. Thomas, FPL Northwest Florida district vice president and general manager, at a ceremony at Carpenter’s Park.

Students from Rhodes Elementary and Milton High schools attended the ceremony, along with several local elected officials and representatives from the city, Santa Rosa County School District and FPL.

According to the FPL website, solar trees, like the company’s solar canopies and SolarZones, are “eye-catching, innovative solar structures created to bring solar technology to the hearts of our communities.” The structures provide shade and use the sun’s power to generate emissions-free energy, but their main purpose is to promote FPL’s commitment to expanding the use of solar power to provide “clean, cost-effective and reliable energy” to customers and communities.

Kyle Schoolar, from Feeding the Gulf Coast, and Kimberly Blair, a Florida Power & Light spokesperson, scan a QR code at the ‘solar tree’ installed by FPL at Carpenter’s Park.

FPL has three large-scale solar energy centers operating in Northwest Florida with 10 more under construction.

The solar trees, solar parking canopies and SolarZones include charging station for visitors’ use and solar-powered lights that can be programmed to change colors. QR codes on each structure allow smartphone users to access information about the power company’s solar commitment.

The installation also features an informational sign that introduces Sunny the Solar Tree, an animated character who leads viewers through an augmented reality experience that can be accessed via a QR code with a smartphone. Visitors can learn about how solar energy is harvested and about solar’s role in generating clean energy to power homes, businesses and schools. Visitors can even take a selfie with Sunny. 

The Carpenter’s Park solar tree is the eighth in Northwest Florida; there are two in Pensacola, two at HarborWalk Village Boardwalk in Destin, and one each in Chipley, Fort Walton Beach and Lynn Haven.

Each solar tree costs about $100,000 to build and install; they are designed to withstand hurricane-force winds. FPL also used the gathering to present a donation of $25,000 Feeding the Gulf Coast, a hunger charity the Panhandle Branch of which is headquartered in Milton.

Council hesitates to support U.S. 90 resolution

“This is my effort to try to bring us together, to try to find some common ground,” Lindsay said of a draft resolution she presented during the council’s regular meeting Dec. 13. The draft reads, in part, that “the government of the City of Milton supports the design and construction of improvements to Highway 90, including through Downtown Milton.” The resolution also declares the city’s desire to work with the Florida Department of Transportation during the project’s design phase, expected to begin as soon as late January; its expectation that FDOT protect the Imogene Theatre during the project; and the city’s plan to enforce a 25 mile-per-hour speed limit through its historic downtown.

The “Highway 90 question” has been a major issue in city politics for most of the past decade. Lindsay has supported cooperating with FDOT to ensure the city has input into the widened roadway’s design; the council in 2019 passed a resolution opposing the plan and pushing the state to choose a different route. All eight members of the previous council publicly declared their opposition to FDOT’s plan and supported efforts to persuade the Florida-Alabama Transportation Planning Organization to remove the project from FDOT’s project priorities list.

Four members of that council are gone; three lost reelection bids and one chose not to seek reelection for personal reasons. But the four commissioners left from the previous council balked at the mayor’s proposed resolution.

Councilman Casey Powell praised parts of the resolution that state the city’s concerns and said he’s always supported the city being involved in the project’s design, but “I have reservations about saying that we support the design and construction, as it’s currently stated.”

Councilman Jeff Snow agreed with Powell and suggested staff revise the draft for consideration at the council’s executive committee meeting Jan. 3.

“I think we can come up with something we can all agree on,” Snow said. “We do want what’s best for Milton, whether you’re for the four-lane or not…we need to be at the table, I agree with that. But we should expect the best for Milton, whichever one we build.”

Lindsay agreed that councilmembers should communicate their suggested changes or concerns to City Manager Randy Jorgenson and said she would work with Jorgenson to develop a new draft. But she emphasized the city is running out of time. An FDOT official said last week a contract with Illinois-based engineering, planning and “allied services” firm Hanson Professional Services Inc. could be approved by the end of January.

“I want us to be able to reach a consensus that is collaborative with FDOT so that we have the best chance to be heard by them and not being considered an obstructive force,” she said. “I don’t want us to be a negative force in this because they’ll be less inclined to take us into account.”

The new council voted unanimously to consider a revised version of the resolution at the executive committee meeting.

To see Lindsay’s draft resolution, go to:

Community Improvement Board cancels December meeting

Ian Satter, a Florida Department of Transportation spokesperson, emphasized last week that the department still is negotiating contract terms with Hanson Professional Services Inc., an Illinois-based engineering, planning and “allied services” firm with offices across the nation, including Tallahassee.

FDOT selected Hanson’s bid on Nov. 28; Satter said the contract is expected to be finalized and design work begin by late January.

The Community Improvement Board had included in its meeting documents for its December meeting Hanson’s initial project design proposal from its bid submission to FDOT.

Satter emphasized that FDOT will ensure all stakeholders – public officials, residents, business owners, commuters and anyone with an interest in downtown Milton – will have multiple opportunities to review and comment on design plans.

“Remember, this is the beginning of a process that could take two or three years,” he said. “The project development and environment study (completed in 2019) analyzed every possible route and concluded that expanding the existing corridor is the best solution, but it doesn’t determine the design. That’s what this project will do, and we will do our best to make sure we include the city and the public in the process.”

FDOT’s plan to widen Caroline Street between Stewart Street and Ward Basin Road is part of a larger project to increase capacity on U.S. 90 between Scenic Highway in Pensacola and U.S. 87 South.

The widening project has been a key issue in Milton city politics for several years but attempts by the city council to convince planning officials to find a different route have been largely unsuccessful. Mayor Heather Lindsay introduced a draft resolution supporting cooperation with FDOT at last week’s regular city council meeting, but some councilmembers felt the resolution should assert the city’s desire to participate in designing the project without indicating they accepted the state’s preferred route.

The council is expected to consider a revised version of the resolution at its executive committee meeting Jan. 3.

Not business as usual: Mayor announces new city committees, assignments

Lindsay, beginning her second term as mayor, and four new councilmembers took their oaths of office at the beginning of the meeting. Mike Cusack, Gavin Hawthorne and Jason Vance defeated incumbents Vernon Compton, Robert Leek and Shari Sebastiao for Wards 1, 3 and 4 seats, respectively, and Marilynn Farrow received two votes more than former mayor Wesley Meiss to win the Ward 2 seat vacated by Shannon Rice, who chose not to run for a second term for personal reasons.

The new council unanimously approved Lindsay’s appointments with one significant change; Lindsay selected newcomer Farrell to represent the city on the Florida-Alabama Transportation Planning Organization’s board of directors, but the council instead chose Roxanne Meiss for the role. Meiss had represented the city on the TPO during her first year in office before withdrawing to care for her mother.

“I’ve been through all the training for it and have a good working knowledge of the position,” Meiss said, adding that she’d be willing to give up her assignment to the Historic Preservation Board if necessary.

The council approved appointing Meiss to the TPO and Farrow to the Emerald Coast Regional Planning Council, with Meiss retaining her spot on the Historic Preservation Board.

Lindsay added three committees: the Business Advisory Council, Locklin Lake Committee and Ordinances Committee. She also combined the Economic Development and Stormwater committees into Growth, Development and Annexation.

“We need to get citizens and residents involved in these efforts,” Lindsay said. “Nothing works without people working together to make government work for the people.”

Lindsay said she would help organize the Ordinance Committee but expects residents to take over its operation for the city.

“It can be a working committee that helps the people know what our ordinances do and also helps generate discussion about how we might improve how our laws work for us,” she said.

The Business Advisory Council is intended to give those who own businesses in Milton but aren’t Milton residents (and can’t vote in Milton city elections) a voice in local government.

“They want to have a voice; I want to help them have that voice,” Lindsay said.

Outgoing Councilman Robert Leek will chair the Business Advisory Council, she said.

Former mayor Wesley Meiss had begun working with staff and residents in the Locklin Lake area in central Milton to get funding to restore the lake. Lindsay said she asked the county’s legislative delegation to support the Locklin Lake Restoration Project at a public hearing earlier this month. She said outgoing Councilman Vernon Compton will lead the Locklin Lake Committee to continue that effort.

Thelake, created in 1827, is bounded by Stewart Street and Dogwood Drive to the east and west and Park Avenue Northwest and Berryhill Road to the north and south. A natural collection point for stormwater and sediment discharge, silt has diminished the water’s quality and contributed to a proliferation of exotic aquatic plants in the lake and downstream.

Road work to begin on U.S. 90 in January

Ian Satter, public information director for FDOT District 3, said work on the 2 ½-mile section of the busy thoroughfare will require some lane closures, but the department will schedule that work to be done overnight, between the hours of 8 p.m. and 5:30 a.m., to minimize the disruption of traffic.

According to FDOT’s website, the project will resurface existing travel lanes, auxiliary lanes, median crossovers and paved shoulders. Crews will make Americans with Disabilities Act upgrades, including sidewalk and curb ramps.

County tables decision on treatment plant land

Chairman Colten Wright was the only commissioner opposed to moving the item to the board’s committee meeting Jan. 9.

“I don’t know about you guys, but my email has been blowing up,” new District 2 Commissioner Kerry Smith said when suggesting the commission postpone the decision. “We’re getting all kinds of new information. I’d like to take some time to go over this before we vote.”

The city plans to build the North Santa Rosa Wastewater Reclamation Facility on a 24-acre parcel between the jail and the Blackwater River in East Milton. Earlier this year, the Milton City Council and SRC Commission each approved a memorandum of understanding transferring a 100-acre parcel of property adjacent to the plant site to the city in exchange for permitted capacity at the plant when it begins operation in 2025. The parties were waiting on a new survey to be completed before the county transferred the deed to Milton.

Residents opposed to the location of the new plant said turnover on the Milton City Council could help their cause and asked the SRC Commission not to decide on the deed before four new city councilors were seated on the eight-member city council Tuesday, Dec. 13.

Milton City Manager Randy Jorgenson argued against tabling the decision because, he said, it was a “technicality” pertaining to a memorandum of understanding already agreed to by the parties.

“The commitment to use this land for this purpose has already been made by Santa Rosa County,” he said, adding that any delay of the project could threaten federal grant funds approved based on the current location.

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection has ordered Milton to stop discharging treated wastewater into the Blackwater River from the existing plant on Municipal Drive by Dec. 31, 2025.

The city acquired the proposed plant site in 2009 and began working to acquire property for wastewater disposal and funding for the project, expected to cost up to $70 million.

The city has secured about $48 million to build the project’s first phase, which includes building a plant that can process up to 2 million gallons of wastewater daily (with additional phases increasing capacity up to 8 million gallons a day); the existing plant is permitted to process up to 2.5 mgd but is near capacity.

Phase 1 also includes building rapid-infiltration basins and a spray field on the property in question. FDEP currently is considering the city’s application to permit up to 1.256 mgd of treated wastewater to be disposed of at the site; the city is searching for more property for wastewater disposal.

Residents and area environmental activists opposed to the proposed plant site argue that the 100-acre parcel doesn’t have enough capacity for all of the plant’s wastewater because of challenges presented by the soil’s density, composition and moisture.

Pam Mitchell, who lives beside Cooper’s Basin and the Blackwater River near the proposed plant location, helps lead a coalition of organizations challenging the site. She asked commissioners to insist that FDEP conduct an environmental impact study of the property; she called an “environmental assessment” by a firm contracted by the city “self-serving” and incomplete.

Mitchell stopped short of asking the county to cancel its agreement with the city – her “pipe dream” – but did ask commissioners to delay their decision on the deed.

“We’re just asking to let the new council be seated and let the chips fall where they may,” she said.
Jorgenson said there was no reason to put off the decision; a condition of the agreement requires the city to return the property to the county if it isn’t used for wastewater disposal.

Students’ success feeds inclusion teacher’s passion

Hobbs worked for 10 years as an operations manager at a Pensacola television station before changing careers.

“My whole life I have been surrounded by educators,” she said. “Both my parents were teachers. I saw the differences they were making in people’s lives, and I wanted to have that same impact.”

Hobbs said her mother, Linda Riley, inspired her to pursue teaching.

“She has always supported me and has always encouraged me to follow my dreams,” she said.

Hobbs earned a bachelor’s degree in elementary education at UWF and also is certified to teach reading, Exceptional Student Education (ESE), and English to Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL). She taught third-grade inclusion for two years and before taking over a fifth-grade inclusion classroom.

Inclusive education focuses on ensuring students feel welcomed and comfortable in the classroom regardless of their physical, cognitive, academic, social or emotional differences.

“What I find most challenging and yet also rewarding is meeting and learning new students at the beginning of each school year,” Hobbs said. “There are many diverse learning styles, and it is important to understand the different learning abilities and needs of each student while getting to know them and their interests. This is vital in order to plan each lesson effectively.”

Providing an individually tailored education for each student takes a lot of effort, Hobbs said, adding that it’s tremendously rewarding “whenever I see a former student, and they come running up to me, to tell me that they are appreciative of me and that they enjoyed my class.

“They tell me about their lives and accomplishments,” she said. “This is worth it all for me, to see that I have made a positive impact on their lives.”

April has a daughter, Oakley Riley, 23. Her husband, Timothy Hobbs, is the father of Gabby Hobbs, 23, and Teagan Hobbs, 17.

When she’s not teaching, Hobbs said she likes to watch Alabama football and spend time with family – especially her dog, Ellie Mae.

Each year, the Santa Rosa Education Foundation honors the Santa Rosa Teacher of the Year as well as teachers of the year from its 35 schools at its annual Golden Apple Awards celebration. The selection process begins before the holidays each year, when teachers at each site nominate and vote for their school’s teacher of the year.

The district’s teacher of the year will compete for the Florida Department of Education’s Teacher of the Year award. According to the Santa Rosa Education Foundation website, the Teacher of the Year Program, which began in 1988, “celebrates the contributions of classroom teachers who demonstrate a superior capacity to inspire a love of learning in students of all backgrounds and abilities.”

Sandpaper Publishing features winners in its coverage area each week, culminating in coverage of the Golden Apple Awards in May.

Legislative Delegation: Election security, water quality highlight residents’ concerns

“Congratulations!” George Oedsma of Pace said to Florida Sen. Doug Broxson last week during the Santa Rosa County Legislative Delegation’s annual public hearing. Oedsma proceeded to “congratulate” Broxson for raising campaign contributions from corporations and individuals far and wide.

Broxson and state Reps. Alex Andrade and Joel Rudman – whose districts include all or part of Santa Rosa County – listened to local elected officials and concerned residents share their wish lists and worries for almost 90 minutes Tuesday, Dec. 6, at the Gulf Breeze Community Center.

Susan Cundiff of Gulf Breeze used her four-minutes to warn legislators that the Biden Administration’s plan to conserve at least 30 percent of U.S. lands and waters by 2030 – the “30 x 30” plan – is part of the “Agenda 21” conspiracy, the goal of which is to bring a New World Order to global power by 2030. The theory gets its name from a nonbinding 1992 United Nations resolution supporting sustainable development.

Cundiff asked legislators to support laws prohibiting Florida from participating in any 30 x 30 or Agenda 21 programs.

Local elected officials requested funding for projects including a U.S. Highway 98 multi-use trail overpass connecting Shoreline Drive to the Publix Parking lot in Gulf Breeze; renovating a vacant former state hospital into a workforce training facility and supporting construction of the North Santa Rosa Regional Wastewater Facility, both in Milton; building an apron and taxiway connecting the Whiting Aviation Park to a runway at NAS Whiting Field to support commercial and industrial development; and helping fund a new medical examiner’s facility for the four-county District One Medical Examiner’s Office.

Broxson said ongoing recovery efforts from hurricanes Sally (2020) and Ian (2022) present challenges, but the state “is in sound financial condition. I think we’ll be able to do some good things.”

Three residents – Sharon Regan, Steve Terrell and Diane Warner – raised concerns about election security, especially the potential vulnerability of the system to online tampering. Regan and Terrell asked the delegates to support Florida ending its participation with ERIC (Electronic Registration and Information Center), a nonprofit organization created help states ensure the accuracy of their voter rolls. Critics question whether ERIC actually protects voter information or makes it more vulnerable.

Three residents – Dara Hartigan, Shana Alford and Jerry Couey – said the state needs to do more to protect water quality. Hartigan asked for greater protection of the Fairpoint Regional Utility System’s wellfield in East Milton; Alford – whose oyster farm closed when the state banned harvesting shellfish from some area waters – asked legislators to undertake a holistic study of the area to identify and mitigate the sources of fecal coliform; and Couey stressed the importance of protecting the Blackwater River and its tributaries, including choosing a different site to build the new wastewater treatment plant in Milton.

Sandy Dimick asked the delegation to end closed primaries; she said the common practice of write-in candidates entering a race to force closed primaries, with no intention of campaigning or competing, disenfranchises independent voters and voters whose parties don’t field candidates.

Jackie Williams asked the county’s lawmakers to support the Florida Citizens Alliance’s conservative education agenda, and Regan, as well as sharing concerns about election security, asked the delegation to support giving residents the power to recall elected officials and implementing a 12-year term limit on elected school superintendents.

Rudman was attending his first legislative delegation; voters elected him to replace Jayer Williamson, who chose not to run for reelection after serving three two-year terms representing District 3. Andrade and Broxson each won reelection to their offices.

At the end of the hearing, Broxson nominated Andrade to chair the delegation again in the coming year. His motion passed without objection.

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