|By Tom McLaughlin, Northwest Florida
Daily News, Fort Walton BeachMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Aug. 24, 2012--FORT WALTON BEACH -- Okaloosa County has approved a development order for Emerald Breeze Resort, a privately managed hotel to be built on military land on Okaloosa Island.
However, building permits will be withheld until a lease agreement is finalized between the Air Force and Rich Chism, program manager for the Emerald Breeze Resort Group.
"In order to execute the lease, the Air Force would like him to produce the development order," Elliot Kampert, the county's growth management director, told county commissioners Tuesday.
Commissioners voted 5-0 to go along with Kampert's recommendation to issue the development order.
But questions remain about the unique contract Emerald Beach Resort Group has received.
In December 2009, the partnership of dck worldwide LLC construction company and Innisfree Development of Gulf Breeze negotiated a deal to lease 17 acres of Air Force land known as Test Site A-5. The site is wedged between Waterscape condominiums and the Sheraton Four Points hotel.
The $24 million beachfront hotel is to be built, owned and run by the developers, although the land will remain in military hands.
The Air Force will maintain radar equipment on the roof of one of the buildings.
Kampert told commissioners that the hotel development group had "committed to working with the Okaloosa tax collector and property appraiser to work out how it will be assessed for improvements to the property."
The military land is exempt from property taxes -- which has riled managers of other island hotels -- but improvements to it can be taxed, according to Property Appraiser Pete Smith.
Bed taxes also will be collected at the hotel and paid to the county, Kampert said.
Henry Kelley, president of the Fort Walton Beach Tea Party, said he still has questions about how the military was legally able to negotiate its lease with Emerald Breeze Resort Group.
Under 2005 legislation pushed through Congress by U.S. Rep. Jeff Miller, military land within the boundaries of the Gulf Islands National Seashore cannot be sold.
Miller introduced a bill to preserve the beach properties after Niceville land speculator Stephen Alford tried to buy land in Taylor County to swap for Eglin's holdings on Okaloosa Island.
Air Force officials then at Eglin admitted at Alford's criminal trial that they had considered going along with the deal.
Kelley wondered why, if Miller's law couldn't prevent the military from leasing to the Emerald Breeze Group, the Air Force couldn't also arrange for hotels to be built on its long stretch of island property to the east, the only undeveloped gulfside land left that is accessible to the public.
"Slapping a radar dish or whatever on top of the hotel seems like a squirrelly way around the law," Kelley said. "That radar dish, to me, imperils the rest of Okaloosa Island."
The issue of the status of the A-5 property was addressed in a letter written by Col. Bruce McClintock, former commander of the 96th Air Base Wing.
"The site in question is an integral part of the 46th Test Wing's mission-related activity across Santa Rosa Island.
"Although current utility is limited by the neighboring structures, it is used daily for test mission engineering design and support, mission equipment buildup and staging, and several times each year to provide monitoring of test activity over the 128,957-square-mile over-water test range."
In conclusion, McClintock said, "I have determined that while currently underutilized, maintaining control of the site is essential to current and future missions."
(c)2012 the Northwest Florida Daily News (Fort Walton Beach, Fla.)
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