Former Santa Rosa County Commissioner Don Salter passed away Sunday morning, August 20, 2023. Salter served District 3 for 20 years before retiring in 2020.
Longtime Santa Rosa County Commissioner Don Salter, who retired in 2020, died Aug. 20.
Salter, who was born on a farm in Jay in 1947 and remained there, said when he took the chairman’s gavel for the board of county commissioners at the beginning of 2020, he was hoping for a peaceful last year.
Instead, he got the Avalon-Garcon Point wildfire, coronavirus and an above-average hurricane season, including a sideswipe by Hurricane Sally.
From working with people who lost their homes to the fire to making tough decisions during the pandemic, it’s been challenging.
“The coronavirus has been a huge challenge to deal with, especially in the beginning where we had to make a decision about closing down the beach,” he said. “And we’ve been dealing with the COVID virus ever since.”
Sally caused major flooding issues, and debris piled high along the roads following the storm. Santa Rosa residents are still sorting through the losses.
Of course, this wasn’t his first hurricane.
Salter took office in 2000 and during his first term as chairman in 2004, Hurricane Ivan made landfall in Navarre.
“It almost totally destroyed the county,” he recalled. “We spent the next several months rebuilding the county, helping people get back in their homes, setting up free distribution centers and getting our infrastructure restored.”
Just over a year later, Dennis came ashore.
“We had to once again help rebuild part of the county,” he said.
Before becoming a county commissioner, he worked for Gulf Power for decades.
It was his position as district manager for Gulf Power in Santa Rosa County that led him to his interest in serving the citizens through elected office.
Salter is credited by many, including former senator Don Gaetz, with bringing economic growth to the county.
“I got to know Commissioner Salter best during my years in the Senate,” Gaetz said. “When I would want to know how a policy decision or an appropriation decision would affect Santa Rosa County, Don Salter is the guy I would call. When I wanted to let the Senate know what Santa Rosa County needed or was thinking, I was the guy he would call.”
Beginning in 2007, as the county struggled with the recession, property taxes tumbled and the county was losing $3.4 million a year from its budget, Salter said. Four years, the deficit had grown in $13 million a year, which is when commissioners took drastic measures.
The county had also been hit hard by the BP Oil Spill in 2010, which put the brakes on tourism.
“Unfortunately, we had to lay off 104 employees and cut capital improvement projects,” he said.
By 2013, they had started to climb out of the recession.
“From there the county started to boom with growth,” he said. “It really helps increase your tax base but also puts a lot of pressure on your infrastructure.”
Salter accomplished a lot during his 20 years, but he took the most pride in his military base protection throughout the region, especially Whiting Field.
After 20,000 acres were identified that needed to be protected in order to support Whiting Field’s mission, Salter worked so the county could get grant money from the state each year through a military defense grant program. He was also able to get money from the Navy’s protection program to the tune of about $500,000 a year. The Navy matched that at 75%.
“Since we started that program in 2002, we have been able to either purchase or secure conservation easements to the tune of about 12,000 acres (around Whiting Field),” he said. “Those areas not only protect the base, but they ensure public recreation.”
This method of base protection has been dubbed the Santa Rosa Model and replicated elsewhere to buffer bases. Gaetz said Salter’s contributions to Whiting are almost incalculable.
“If Whiting Field didn’t already have a name, it should be Don Salter field,” he said. “The job creation projects and economic development projects he has championed in and around Whiting Field will add hundreds of jobs and tens of millions of dollars in positive economic impact on Santa Rosa County.” Salter actively advocated for keeping Santa Rosa’s rural areas rural, too. He blocked rezonings that would have allowed increased building in northern areas of the county and frequently brought the important role of those rural areas into the forefront.
A veteran himself, Salter also helped to get the veterans memorial built in downtown Milton along the Riverwalk. Salter was an Army paratrooper in Vietnam from 1967-68, a time period considered to be that war’s bloodiest.
In 2022, he was selected as the 2022 Friend of Agriculture for Santa Rosa County. During his service, Salter worked with county staff to create the Rural Protection Plan for the northern part of the county designed to protect the rural character, agricultural viability and natural resources of northern Santa Rosa County. He also had a street named for him. Don Salter Boulevard leads to the Whiting Aviation Park in Milton.
In a social media post, Salter’s son, Donnie, said, “It’s hard to utter the words…’my dad has passed away’. But those words are now reality. There are absolutely not enough words to describe this man. The things he did for his family, his friends, his country and his Santa Rosa County.”
He went on to say, “To the strongest and hardest working man I ever knew. I’ll always hold the Salter name high and stand strong beside it.”