Commissioners debate Milton site for courthouse

The site of Santa Rosa County’s long-discussed new courthouse was debated by commissioners again on Monday.

After nearly two hours, commissioners inched toward selecting a location by next month.

The debate was triggered by Commissioner Rob Williamson’s proposal to build the estimated $35 million facility off Pine Street in Milton, adjacent to CSX railroad tracks and near Milton’s sewage treatment plant.

“I believe Pine Street is the best location period,” Williamson said. “I believe this idea was put in my head for a reason and a lot of good things have happened since.”

Most of the necessary land has been acquired by the city of Milton, he said, and there is enough room to build a comprehensive facility rather than a smaller one proposed near the current courthouse.

Drainage and noise concerns could be resolved during construction, Williamson said.

The proposal divided commissioners, with Chairman Don Salter and Commissioner Bob Cole urging an upland site with better drainage and road access near Dogwood Road in Milton.

Commissioners backed away from previously proposed sites in Pea Ridge and off Avalon Boulevard.

Cole said limiting the proposed site to downtown Milton did not consider the majority of the county’s residents.

“It’s time for the tail to stop wagging the dog on this,” Cole said.

Pine Street was described as the least valuable property in the downtown area, to which Williamson said, “I mean do you want to put it on the most valuable property?”

The Pine Street proposal drew a critical assessment from Donald Spencer, the county’s clerk of courts.

“It’s a swamp,” he said.

Also, Spencer said the site was 15 yards from the railroad tracks bringing noise and the threat to safety posed by derailments.

Salter agreed.

“There is a reason it is the least valuable,” he said.

County residents who spoke during the debate urged commissioners to select a proposed site and move ahead with the project, which likely would ultimately have to be settled by voters in the form of a proposed sales tax increase.

Don Richards of Gulf Breeze suggested commissioners be placed in a closed room and stay there until they choose a site. He offered to buy pizza and sandwiches for the session.

But he was doubtful of the Pine Street proposal.

“I’m not sure that moving it next to the railroad track is the way to go,” he said. “You’ve got to use some common sense on this thing and make a decision. We have to have a courthouse.”

“Why can’t y’all get together?” Chrys Holley of Milton said. “We have to get this issue behind us.”

Holley cited previous voter support for keeping the courthouse in Milton’s downtown district.

“The people have spoken,” she said.

Clyde Anderson of Gulf Breeze acknowledged the commissioners’ dilemma.

“This has been kicked around for 20 years,” he said. “There is no perfect answer.”

Wallis Mahute of East Milton said the county has experienced train derailments and the county should not build a new courthouse where that would be an issue.

“Think about it because it can happen,” she said.

Mahute also cited the site’s poor drainage and proximity to the sewage plant, nicknamed “Old Stinky.”

She also said downtown Milton should be developed for river-based tourism.

Commissioner Rob Williamson proposed commissioners vote on the Pine Street proposal during Thursday’s meeting in Gulf Breeze. Jayer Williamson and Lane Lynchard supported the vote.

“I’m ready to let the chips fall where they may,” Rob Williamson said.

As seen in the Nov. 12 issue of Navarre Press. Click HERE to subscribe for as little as $38 per year.

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