It takes more than good intentions to transform the South. It takes money.
What the hell is a Scalawag?
In the 1950s, Peter Horn Jr.'s grandfather built a house in Seagrove, a small north Florida beach neighborhood along Florida State Road 30A, the highway that runs for 24 miles of the panhandle, hugging the Gulf of Mexico. Back then, 30A was a dirt road traversing one of the most biodiverse spots in the entire country, where a mix of wetland and forest ecosystems brushed up against white sand beaches, fanning out toward Georgia and Alabama.
On 30A, nature takes the driver's seat. When Horn was growing up in the 1960s, this part of South Walton County was still barely developed. He spent childhood summers walking along the scrubby pines and oak trees. He saw how the wind shaped the tops of vegetation near the shore, and played in hammocks over the treetops on the dunes.
Sixty years later, Seagrove now sits between Panama City and Destin, both big beach developments with high rise condos along the shore. It's the eastern stretch of the Redneck Riviera, a place where, as Harvey H. Jackson III wrote in his book The Rise and Decline of the Redneck Riviera, "instead of art galleries they built haunted castles, instead of symphonies there was a jukebox, instead of white tablecloth restaurants there were oyster bars and smoked mullet."
Just past the Waffle House and CVS at the edge of Panama City Beach, turning onto 30A takes you through a stretch of small but distinctly defined communities. The difference is stark: Suddenly, chain stores and giant 20-story hotels give way to single-family beach houses, wine bars, and upscale shops.
Today, the name "30A" itself has become a stand-in for more than just a dirt road—it's a lifestyle brand, complete with round aqua stickers that dot cars across the Southeast, the zero represented by a shining yellow sun.
Some constants have remained over the years. Like his grandfather, Horn builds homes along the beach highway. You can still catch glimpses of the emerald Gulf from the road.
And, importantly, nature is still in the driver's seat.
After the thick tree canopy planted along Rosemary Beach abruptly drops off, you'll pass through the towering white pyramids that bookend Alys Beach, one of the latest additions to the list of 30A beach town developments.
While people in neighboring Bay County are still struggling to recover from Hurricane Michael three years ago, Alys Beach is fortified to the highest level against increasingly powerful coastal storms. The multimillion dollar vacation houses here are more likely to remain standing than the less lavish homes further down the coast.
As the climate crisis warms the Gulf of Mexico, fueling more intense hurricanes, these picture-perfect planned communities show that with enough money, the wealthy can pay to keep their palm trees, boutiques, and beach cruisers—while everyone else worries about surviving the next big storm.
But Alys Beach isn't exactly the pinnacle of long-term sustainability, either.
"There's really little environmentally beneficial about building luxury second homes for people on a very rare environment," said Dr. Kathryn Ziewitz, who leads Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University's Sustainability program and wrote her dissertation on New Urbanism's sustainability claims.
Despite presenting environmental awareness as its untold story, the development is selling homebuyers more than a supposedly sustainable investment designed with ecology in mind.
"You can of course do it better or worse, but this is simply a fancy resort that is extremely beautiful," Ziewitz said.
Developments like these along 30A are selling environmentalism as a commodified luxury good—and making a declaration about who can and can't thrive in the face of climate change.
While those with the means to do so think they're purchasing peace of mind, the reality is the intentional curation of a less diverse—and therefore less resilient—coastline.
Proprietors may boast the sustainability of individual houses and neighborhoods, but in doing so, they're ignoring broader social ecosystems. Many people who work as baristas, shopkeepers, and landscapers along 30A can't afford to live in the southern part of the county and commute from inland.
The average price of a home on 30A is $1.62 million. As of this writing, the cheapest Alys Beach property for sale was a lot listed at $1.7 million. The area's year-round residents, who, like Horn, build and sustain these vacation communities, make an average $58,000 a year.
"We could put double wide trailers there, and they'd go for a million dollars," said Christian Wagley, a coastal organizer with Healthy Gulf who worked as Alys Beach's environmental manager. "Nothing is going to get built on that beachfront that's going to be for moderate income folks. The land is so valuable it drives people to build the biggest things they can build, and that's a larger societal issue."
Ironically, the high-end development boom on 30A is connected to the state of Florida's purchase of 18,000 acres of land for environmental protection in the 1990s. About 40 percent of the land in South Walton is designated as a state forest or state park, leaving developers with the constraint of white-sand beaches to one side of 30A and forest to the other.
Coming off of the purchase, the county created its first comprehensive planning document, which tried to reconcile those who wanted to protect more of the area with others who were salty that too much land was now off the tax rolls. The only way hungry developers saw to make up for the protected land was to build at an expensive price point.
"Essentially, that plan was to create a high-end resort," Mac Carpenter, who leads the Walton County Planning Department, said. "And the plan has worked better than anyone ever dreamed it would."
In 2019, two-thirds of all of Walton County's government revenue came from South Walton vacationers. Development and tourism are financial drivers, as the area has a well-off clientele whose average household income is a quarter million dollars. About 75,000 people live in the county year round, but that number swells to 3 million people in the summertime, according to Carpenter.
The thing is, the homes here are energy efficient. In any other location, at another price point, or for another purpose, the construction details of the homes in Alys Beach could be called sustainability wins. Their white masonry—specifically a reflective albedo white—keeps the buildings cool even on hot Florida summer afternoons. Stone pavers absorb water instead of creating runoff. The lot lines are compact, and no one has a lawn. The communal green spaces are landscaped with native plants.
"People move here because of the environmental policies our county has developed and our desire, or the perception that our county is very interested in protecting the environment," Carpenter said. "Oddly enough, people will pay more when those policies are in place."
He holds up Alys Beach as "a great steward of the environment" in the county. The development's marketing materials know this appeal and emphasize its walkability, simplicity, and balance. According to Carpenter, the county is invested in not "kill[ing] this golden goose that's been created"—the high-end developments have financially supported the entire county.
Paying for resilience
There are, of course, mechanisms for creating affordable housing and not letting market forces drive all development, and Walton County's own comprehensive plan in the 1990s called for it. But this stretch of beach highway highlights how money, sustainability, and survivability intersect as the climate crisis unfolds.
"I do not consider it a sustainable development unless it truly has an affordable housing component," said Jane West, the Policy and Planning Director for 1000 Friends of Florida. "And by affordable, I don't mean $300,000. I mean affordable for a waitress."
West's organization is focused on sustainable planning in a state that is notoriously bad at it.
The county added free public transportation connecting the north and south ends of the county to accommodate the seasonal flow of labor. Currently, there is affordable housing under construction inland, but Carpenter acknowledges that "the market that we've created here drives the cost of housing in the other direction."
Creating sustainable development is about more than the individual homes or the neighborhoods they form, but also about who can live in them.
"If you read [their comprehensive plan], you would think, 'Well, God, other than conservation in park and recreation space, there shouldn't be anything on the coastline,'" West said.
West points out one of the plan's objectives is to protect and conserve coastal dunes, dune systems, and beaches.
"Well, protecting and conserving is not allowing for an exclusive high-end residential development," she said. "That's the opposite."
While surveying the area after Hurricane Michael, William Butler, a professor of planning at Florida State University who studies how local governments are planning for sea level rise, said he was "flabbergasted by the level of wealth" concentrated along the developments on 30A.
"When you hit a certain point on 30A," Butler said, "it's like, whoa, things just changed. It's almost Twilight Zoney."
That concentration of money plays directly into the region's financial ability to prepare for climate change. In comparison to its neighbors, Walton County is already much wealthier, with more funds on hand to take on storm recovery or adaptation measures.
Another factor, according to Butler, is how local governments spend funds. Allocating any money based on a classic cost/benefit analysis without an equity-oriented lens will direct money to the area of highest economic value.
"Which is the area with the highest wealth, right?" Butler said. "So, you're basically spending public dollars that are going to protect the wealthy."
Walton County also has the advantage of geography, with a shoreline at one of the state's highest points, significantly above sea level—a rarity in Florida. While the water is, eventually, expected to rise, Walton County and these high-end developments have more time to prepare than other parts of the state.
'Making place' out of the natural landscape
The key to understanding today's 30A development can be found seven miles up 30A in Seaside, the community that birthed the development ideas of New Urbanism in 1981. A design concept that focuses on creating walkable, mixed-use development, New Urbanism is now textbook urban planning used around the world. From Milwaukee to Madrid, city planners follow its "human-scaled" design principles.
Seaside is a planned beach community of pastel homes with pedestrian-friendly streets arranged around a handful of photogenic businesses: a candy shop, a cafe, a cute little post office. Just a few years after it was finished, Seaside served as the setting for The Truman Show, where Jim Carey plays the unknowing, unwilling star of a reality show in fictional Seahaven, a beautiful but tightly controlled environment.
Initially, developer Robert Davis envisioned the community as a place that would evoke the Florida of his childhood, with small cracker houses for working-class folks, a place that an artist or teacher could live in. Early plans set out to create homes at a range of price points, but that never happened.
Instead, market forces shaped construction. From 1984 to 2000, the price of a cottage lept from $50,000 to $500,000. When the St. Joe Paper Company pivoted from timber to real estate in the late 1990s, it looked to Seaside. Developments like WaterColor directly to the west also took on the public face of environmentalism as they poured concrete.
"Hiring in-house horticulturalists and biologists before bulldozer operators, as St. Joe has done, is rare anywhere, especially in northwest Florida," Ziewitz wrote with co-author June Wiaz in their book, Green Empire. "But, then, few have the hubris to declare they are 'making places' out of places that are so inherently well made by nature."
The ethos of Alys Beach also follows this logic of "making place" out of the natural landscape. The Stephens, Alabama's wealthiest family who made their money building EBSCO's research databases and magazine subscriptions, bought the 158 acres of coastal land in the 1970s. The land wasn't touched until 2004, when the family started building a development named for Elton B. Stephens's wife, Alys. Their son Jim brought in town planners from DPZ, the same team that laid out Seaside. Andrés Duany, one of the lead planners called the pre-developed area a "backwater" that's now improved by one of the "greatest collections of excellent architecture" in the South.
That attitude is also reflected in flattering Wall Street Journal features extolling the area's high-end development. "We get that ridiculous label of Redneck Riviera, but it's a highly affluent market," luxury real-estate agent Cindy Cole told the Journal in 2020.
Over the past 30 years, the land that isn't protected has been transformed parcel by parcel into vacation homes. That protected land that developers were initially upset to see taken off the table is now a selling point, an unbeatable amenity of rare longleaf pine coastal forest.
These areas are a glimpse into what all of South Walton originally looked like: a spectacular convergence of 11 ecosystems including coastal scrub, wet prairies, and cypress domes. In Deer Lake State Park, endangered pitcher plants and spoonflowers bloom. Rare coastal dune lakes, found only in a handful of places on earth, are home to salt marsh snakes and river otters.
There's a diversity of life in the state parks and forest that creates resilience. And yet, "in this incredibly ecologically diverse place, there's homogeneity in terms of who can live, stay, and play," Butler said.
"Resilience theorizing says clearly that where you have ecological systems and social systems with high levels of diversity, interconnective feedback supports the adaptive capacity of that system, from plants to the global ecosystem. When we homogenize places, we're reducing the resilience of it because we don't have all the skills and approaches to respond to what comes up."
Even though all this development has ushered in some opportunity for the people who've long called this place home, there's heartache over what's already been lost. And as climate change looms, more loss is ahead.
When asked what's been lost, builder Peter Horn, Jr. replied, "There's a great country song called 'Man Walks Among Us.'" The song describes animals in a desert calling out to warn each other that man is coming. The final verse foreshadows the coming anthropocene:
Soon will be gone all the desert
Cities will cover each hill
Today will just be a fond memory
Man walks among us, be still, be still.