FAIRHOPE – Eastern Shore residents living both inside Fairhope city limits and within its planning jurisdiction gathered at the Fairhope Civic Center on Wednesday night armed with questions about development. When all was said and done, most …
FAIRHOPE – Eastern Shore residents living both inside Fairhope city limits and within its planning jurisdiction gathered at the Fairhope Civic Center on Wednesday night armed with questions about development. When all was said and done, most seemed to leave with a better sense of the amount of control officials have over building within those areas.
The meeting between city and county officials was called after many residents cried foul over a handful of projects, including the recently completed Wal-Mart on Highway 181, low-income housing on Twin Beech Road near Highway 98, the Colony at the Grand luxury condominium complex in Point Clear and housing for foreign workers built next to Fairhope High School.
All fall within Fairhope’s planning district, but are outside the city limits, and the properties are unzoned.
Gregg Mims, Fairhope planning director, said a 1923 Alabama state law directs zoning procedures and other land use issues. He added, “In areas not zoned, we have no ability to control land use.”
Fairhope’s planning jurisdiction was set up in a 1991 agreement with the Baldwin County Commission, he said. The area encompasses acreage as far east as Fish River and as far south as County Road 1 along Mobile Bay.
In those areas, city rules such as those prohibiting big-box stores like Wal-Mart and Home Depot do not apply. Mims said subdivision regulations for buffer zones, traffic studies, transportation models, storm water control and maintenance of common areas do, however.
The city also has the power to issue permits up to 1.5 miles outside the city. Mims said without zoning, building officials have no choice but to issue permits if a project meets all requirements within the city’s power to enforce.
Baldwin County Planning Director Wayne Dyess said, “Land use and development is the single most important issue we face. In areas where you don’t have zoning, that’s one of the biggest problems we have. Around Fairhope, we haven’t been successful in getting zoning and that hurts you when you’re trying to control your growth. Without zoning, the city doesn’t have much control, and the county doesn’t either.”
Betty Bayer, who said she lives on 10 acres near Highway 181, said, “We desperately want Fairhope to annex the 181 corridor. God help us what will happen if you don’t.”
Dyess said residents have that option, and there is a process in place to do that.
Bayer added, “I think we have had a wakeup call with what happened on Greeno Road (the apartments for Grand Hotel foreign workers). I know how devastated the people living near there are. The people have learned their lesson now.”
Registered voters living near 181, coupled with those living in areas south of Fairhope, voted overwhelmingly to reject zoning in a referendum held last year. The measure failed in part because of opposition by the District 17 Community Association, a grassroots watchdog group.
A.J. Cooper, association president, said, “There are lots of folks who live around Fairhope who are not happy. There’s a reason folks have been voting down zoning. They don’t trust the public officials. Wal-Mart is an example. They came in the dead of night.
Permits for the superstore were issued five years ago, Cooper claimed, adding it took residents that long to find out about the project.
In reality, said City Councilwoman Debbie Quinn, Wal-Mart’s building permit was issued just six months before construction on the store began. Building officials have long said the retailer met all requirements, and the permit could not have been denied.
Cooper also criticized city officials over the handling of the apartments adjacent to the high school. He said, “If the mayor had gotten on his bully pulpit, if the City Council president had gotten on his bully pulpit, you could have said ‘Grand Hotel, no matter how important you are to our community, we don’t want foreign workers next to our high school’ – it would have made a difference … You have the planning commission all over saying ‘yes, yes, yes’ while the people say ‘no, no, no.’”
Mayor Tim Kant said, “Can we do better? Yes. We’re learning every day. We’re elected to make the hard decisions. We can’t please everybody. We have to make decisions and move on.”
Answering Cooper’s call for accountability, City Councilman Cecil Christenberry said, “We want to do the right thing. Transparency is the right thing. We’ve got to be transparent. We’ve got to be honest. We’ve got to communicate. We’ve got to be accountable to each other.”