September 1, 2014

Development

'Velocity of Growth'

Developers are scooping up land — by the thousands of acres — in 1,200-population Freeport.

Charlotte Crane | 9/1/2005
When she was young, says retired teacher Beckie Buxton, her hometown of Freeport resembled the friendly villages in storybooks. It was small enough, she says, "if you heard a car coming down the road you could almost tell who it was."

The dynamic forecast for this historic port town and fishing village now has her looking forward to bigger-town conveniences -- while counting on city officials to preserve some of its small-town flavor.

In fact, Freeport -- population 1,200 -- is poised to explode. Three major developers have purchased nearly 9,000 acres in or around the Walton County town and drafted 10- to 20-year blueprints for homes, parks, town centers, golf courses and retail space. Within a year, as many as 3,500 homes could be going up inside the expanding city limits -- potentially adding some 9,000 people, a 750% jump, according to Latilda Henninger, hired recently as Freeport's first city planner.

Freeport's location about 20 minutes away from booming beach communities and its still relatively affordable real estate are big reasons for the land rush, says Henninger. Between sprawling Eglin Air Force Base to the west, extensive conservation and utility preserves and coastal development pressures, the squeeze is apparent. There's need for housing: Most people who work along the coast can't afford to live there, developers say.

"Freeport is one of the few pockets of private land available," says Buddy Runnels, managing partner for Cornerstone Development in Destin, which swooped up its 4,300 Freeport acres three years ago -- a purchase proving "as prudent an investment as we've ever made. The velocity of growth has shocked us."

This year's preliminary property assessment for Freeport shows a 27% increase in value since a year ago.

Fourteen-year Mayor Mickey Marse, 65, re-elected in July, says growth is welcome, and the city can handle it. It has a new high school and library. Developers are donating parks and sports sites. By early fall, a sewage plant expansion will double treatment capacity; a second plant is planned. And logjam traffic should be averted with construction, expected to start this year, of a $24.5-million, 5.6-mile bypass for U.S. Highway 331.

Meanwhile, new roads cut through pine woods at major project sites, where homes could start mushrooming by fall -- at Cornerstone Development's Freeport Plantation, Destin developer Jay Odom's 3,000-acre Hammock Bay and Owl's Head Community, a 1,650-acre neighborhood planned by an Atlanta partnership.

"In the next 10 years, this will be the place that's brand new," says Odom.

Tags: Housing/Construction, Northwest

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