What message did Santa Rosa County voters send to county leadership in Tuesday’s primary election?
Was it one of pro-development, anti-development, pro-change, anti-change? The message, some say, is clear — but the hope for the future is mixed.
“I think we sent a strong message that the commissioners work for the citizens, and we, as the taxpayers, are wanting some change,” said Dara Hartigan, leader of the Save Our Soundside group, a citizen activist group founded around two years ago to provide an organized voice against what they say is over-development, depletion of local natural resources and a squeeze on existing infrastructure. “We unseated two incumbents. … I think that (Tuesday’s) message is that the citizens count, and going into the 2022 (election) that message is going to resonate for the next two years at least, when Districts 2 and 4 are up for re-election.”
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On Aug. 18, voters in Santa Rosa County ousted two of the three incumbents who were up for re-election. The county’s longest-serving commissioner, Don Salter, lost the Republican nomination to political newcomer James Calkins for District 3, and in District 5, the three-term commissioner from Gulf Breeze, Lane Lynchard, lost to local businessman Colten Wright.
Sam Parker, who was seeking his second term as the representative for the Pace and Pea Ridge areas, held off two challengers to snag the Republican nomination for District 1. He’ll now move on to the Nov. 3 general election, where he faces write-in candidate Chase Gilbert.
Combined with citizens’ resounding defeat of the half-cent sales tax increase last fall, and the ousting of District 4 Commissioner Rob Williamson in 2018, some residents said the message of at least the last two or three years is one of a call for change in how county leadership addresses certain issues.
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“My grasp of this is that this was the most consequential election in Santa Rosa County in 20 years,” said Carmen Reynolds, an engaged citizen from Navarre. “We are behind in infrastructure to accommodate the rampant growth, we are behind in the number of schools to support the burgeoning development, and we were just making a move to get a handle on that with educational impact fees.
“But we are at a crossroads,” she added. “We’ve been at a crossroads for the last, I would estimate, three years, where our population growth has exceeded our ability to transport the people to and from work, school sports, etc., and our schools have ceased being able to meet the needs of students.”
It remains to be seen, of course, whether the two new commissioners will enact meaningful change in terms of the county’s direction.
In an interview with the News Journal the day after his primary win, Wright, the new representative for District 5, said he is pro-impact fee, pro-Local Option Sales Tax and pro-“reasonable development.”
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He said watching the build-out of the Gulf Breeze peninsula has made him acutely aware of the need for more balanced development, particularly in the south end of the county.
“I’ve seen decades now of development that was done in a way that certainly wasn’t as responsible as what should have been done,” he said.
When asked if he was in favor of enacting ordinances or putting in place restrictions on new developments, Wright gave a measured response, saying he was a “strong believer” in private property rights but would support adding teeth to the Land Development Code rewrite.
“I don’t believe in rubber stamping things, I think the mechanism, really, to reign some of that (development) in will frankly come from the Land Development Code,” he said. “I think, if you don’t have a clear, written rule, it makes it very hard for a board to enforce anything. I’m a big believer in private property rights, and I do believe if a property is zoned a certain way, then an owner is within their rights to use it for that purpose, as long as they are doing everything within the code and the ordinances are there. “
Calkins could not be reached for comment for this story.
LDC rewrite: Will Santa Rosa County’s new land development code have teeth? Or is it all just lip service?
Paul Gault, an Air Force veteran and cybersecurity consultant who lives in Navarre, considers himself an actively engaged citizen. Gault moved to Navarre from Denver, Colorado, nearly two years ago.
Gault said he’s confident there will be at least some change at the county leadership level based on who was elected Tuesday.
“We tend to look before we leap, and the county commissioners allow that. I think the message that the voters are sending right now is for the Board of County Commissioners to wake up,” Gault said. “The status quo cannot continue. We have to prioritize the most basic necessities in the county, and that is flood abatement, storm water runoff, infrastructure and fiscal conservatism.”
Whether or not the election really is transformative for Santa Rosa County remains to be seen. Voters at the very least have been clear that they are fed up with traffic issues that have plagued the county and want big-name developers to pay their fair share of infrastructure improvements associated with the large-scale housing neighborhoods that are popping up around the county.
“What we have to do as a citizen group, all of us in Santa Rosa County, we have to decide: are we going to keep throwing mud and being ugly and raising cain, or are we going to get behind these folks and say, ‘This is what I want,’ and start advocating for things that we want?” Gault said. “The problem is that when only 25% of voters come out for candidate selection and only 20% come out for a tax increase, the large majority is not participating, and that’s what bothers me the most.”
Annie Blanks can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 850-435-8632.