Pensacola News Journal – December 5, 2020

As residents of Santa Rosa County know, the place they call home is one of the most beautiful and unspoiled places in the entire state of Florida. From its diverse and abundant natural beauty to the excellence of the county’s schools and quality of life, Santa Rosa is a long-hidden treasure that is rapidly being discovered by an increasing number of new residents and businesses.

So we commend Santa Rosa officials for starting the groundwork to develop specific, long-term strategic plans for preserving and enhancing the county even in the face of so much growth and change.

In a recent viewpoint about the importance and impact of local government, Santa Rosa County Administrator Dan Schebler said that the county is seeking citizen input to help set priorities for an updated strategic planning process. Schebler told the PNJ that county staff from across departments have already collaborated to identify and outline initial goals and challenges for the county. The next step is asking commissioners to approve funding for a consultant who can flesh out that vision with data-based analysis and detail-specific benchmarks. Commissioners should absolutely support that small investment that will help guide billions of dollars worth of development and decisions in the years to come.

Citizens often have reason to be skeptical about paying for government plans and studies that never actually get put into action. But Schebler points out that Santa Rosa has a respectable record of following through, as evidenced by goals set forth in the 2006 “Better Santa Rosa Plan” that have since been actualized. 

The document from 2006 identifies everything from county customer service improvements, to funding for parks, to specific needs such as sidewalks, road and intersection improvements throughout the county — many of which have been put into action over the last 14 years. 

One of the most notable goals from the 2006 plan was funding and building a new county courthouse — a long-sought need and a huge symbol of progress that is finally under construction and a couple years away from completion.

Strategic plans like the 2006 document are crucial for providing long-term focus and consistency even as elected officials, political agendas and unpredictable events all come and go and change like the tides in South Santa Rosa.

A strategic plan sets down a vision and mission that residents can count on, regardless of how their government might shift and change.   

The battle over the potential expansion of borrow pits that could threaten the drinking water supply is another example of an issue that should be driven by a larger, long-term strategic plan.  

As reported by Annie Blanks last week, despite a “Wellfield Protection District” in East Milton established to preserve sources of potable water for nearly half the county, the owners of borrow pits in the area want to change existing regulations so that they can expand the pits. The pits are used to provide dirt for construction projects and are later filled with land-clearing debris that can potentially contaminate water sources.  

Could change to Santa Rosa Land Development Code threaten clean water for half the county?

The county’s own planning board advised against such a change. However, their recommendation is non-binding and the issue will go before county commissioners on Dec. 10. Residents, environmentalists and water quality experts have overwhelmingly opposed the pit expansion, and according to county officials, there have been hundreds of calls and emails voicing that concern.  

The story is the latest hot-button issue that has forced county leaders to weigh the passionate outcry from large numbers of county residents against potential policy changes requested by developer-related businesses. And while it’s crucial and for citizens to speak up, those citizens would be bolstered by strong and specific strategic planning that lays out the policies, values and long-term goals of the community. 

In other words, if “preservation of clean water” is in the county’s strategic plan but “bigger borrow pits” are not, then it’s easy for commissioners to avoid a contentious issue and understand which public policy meets the long-term needs and desires of county residents.

Smart growth is a great thing. And despite all the change that Santa Rosa has seen in recent years, it still remains a place that’s relatively natural and undeveloped compared to so many other parts of Central and South Florida that are stricken with sprawl and the cheap and ugly remnants of rapid and haphazard growth.

Santa Rosa County has an opportunity to do it better through smart and specific strategic planning. It’s an excellent sign that county officials and staff are working toward developing such goals. County commissioners should join them in laying out a vision that will enhance the county and preserve an exceptional quality of life for generations of future Santa Rosans.