Development upsets some residents

By Traci DiPietro
Staff Writer
Posted 5/23/07

FAIRHOPE — A number of Fairhope residents are up in arms over the issue of multifamily modular homes being built just outside Fairhope’s city limits on Greeno Road. They say they want to know how this development passed without anyone knowing …

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Development upsets some residents


FAIRHOPE — A number of Fairhope residents are up in arms over the issue of multifamily modular homes being built just outside Fairhope’s city limits on Greeno Road. They say they want to know how this development passed without anyone knowing anything about it, and why this particular project was “tossed by the county.” Who, they ask, was really responsible for issuing permits and overseeing the development ?

The unzoned land is located within the city’s five-mile planning jurisdiction and the 1 1/2-mile area in which Fairhope issues building permits. Typically, an unzoned development with multiple-housing units would require county approval, but in this case, the city of Fairhope issued a building permit to developers without the developers ever approaching the county.

This is odd, said County Commisioner David Bishop, because most developers do approach the county, even if only to let them know what they are doing and to see what is required at the county level.

“They just went out and started building,” said Bishop. “This was odd in the fact that they didn’t ask questions.”

If the development had been built outside the city’s five-mile planning jurisdiction, the county would have had plenty of regulations in place to warrant interaction with the county, said Bishop.

But as it stands, the developer was not actually required to seek any county approval.

“It’s one of those gray areas,” said Bishop. “We are working to get the Legislature to overturn Judge Wilters decision. It’s currently on appeal to the Supreme Court.”

The county, he says, doesn’t have the authority to require multifamily subdivisions in planning jurisdictions to meet city site design standards; and because of this, local standards for site design — including storm water management, building setbacks and open space requirements — for future developments are now in question.

Ultimately, said Bishop, the best way to prevent these situations is for the area residents to adopt zoning.

As for the city’s role, officials say they do not become involved in county regulation issues.

“It is the developer’s responsibility to acquire all necessary city, county and state approvals,” said Jonathan Smith, a planner for the city.

City control, he said, is limited to ensuring the developer adheres to standard building codes and meets ordinance requirements. Because the property is not zoned and is not a subdivision, said Smith, the developers are only required to get a building permit from the city and to comply with tree ordinances and drainage standards. ALDOT would oversee traffic issues, so the developers did not need to get approval from the planning and zoning commision or from City Council. The fact that the homes are modular means that the city can only inspect the outside; the state inspects the interior.

Since Monday night’s City Council meeting, residents have begun to accuse city authorities of wrong doing; of complacency and palm-greasing. Councilman Cecil Christenberry said one man shouted at him from a nearby truck, accusing him and other city representatives of having received a kickback.

“These accusations are malicious and unfounded,” said Christenberry. “It upsets me that this council is being blamed when this is not a City Council issue.”

“We have got to get this under control,” he said.

The fact that one of the property owners, Haymes Snedeker, is a Fairhope municipal judge has aroused some suspicion. The contentious property is owned by Snedeker and a partner, Ray Hix, operating under the name Lone Oak Properties LLC.

Lone Oak had been contracted to lease housing developments to Point Clear Hotels & Resorts, the Retirement Systems of Alabama entity responsible for managing the Battle House, Riverview Plaza Hotel and Grand Hotel Marriott Resort, Golf Club & Spa in Point Clear.

Christenberry said he first became aware that the housing would be built last year when the developers participated in a city work session in which modular home construction was discussed. They told council members that modular buildings did not require city inspection as they were already inspected and approved by state inspectors while at the factory. The work session followed the permit application. Following the work session, the city imposed a moratorium on modular homes, but the development was already in the building approval process and was not affected by the moratrium.

Christenberry said commission members asked the developers what type of housing was being built, and Snedeker replied that it would be affordable housing. According to Christenberry, the men never indicated any intention of building dormitory style housing for foreign workers, and commission and council members were never formally informed about the RSA or Grand Hotel connections.

“They never mentioned, to the best of my recollection, anything about Point Clear holdings, the Grand, or immigrant workers,” said Christenberry.

There is no law requiring the developers to reveal that information, he said, but he did find it odd that the subject was never mentioned.

Bob Gentle, council chairman, said council members knew modular apartments were being built, but they, too, had no idea that they were being built to house international workers for the Grand.

In a written statement issued to City Council members, dated May 10, Snedeker says “We have been open and completely transparent with this development from the day we first met the building department officials and the City Council … we were officially permitted by the city of Fairhope and the state of Alabama to construct this development.”

This statement stands in stark contrast to the statements by city council members, who say they were unaware of the proposed use of the property.

This is not the first time Snedeker and Hix have dealt with this type of project. According to the minutes of the Mobile City Planning Commission, dated Feb.15, 2007, Lone Oak Properties applied for planning approval for “a dormitory facility for international students conducting internships” in Mobile, to service the Riverview and Battle House Hotels.

Their housing developments are intended to be rented to international workers, usually college students, some of whom who will work in the hotels under a J-1 visa (sometimes referred to as an “educational internship”) as an international trainee. The J-1 training visa allows the trainee to stay in the country for up to 18 months, receiving a minimum stipend of $1,750 each month.

Unskilled, uneducated workers can also find work in the hotels under the H-2B visa program, which allows the employers to fill seasonal and short-term positions with foreigners under a less restrictive program.

The Grand anticipates hiring roughly 100 foreign workers, said David Clark, general manager of the Grand, and many would have difficulty finding affordable rentals in the area. He said at one time as many as 70 workers stayed at Arbor Gates and other local apartment complexes, but the complexes no longer have room available to house them.

The council has voted to impose a 30 day moratorium on multifamily dwellings in order to give planning and zoning more time to tighten subdivision regulations, but once again, the moratorium will not affect this development.