Fields of cotton and corn, pecan groves and woods have lined the road for so long that it’s easy to ignore the “For Sale” signs. Then one day a new sign announces the next subdivision on the Eastern Shore.
Soon the streets are paved, lots are marked off and construction crews pull in. Houses spring up. A few miles up the road or in the next field over, the process repeats.
Through the end of November, 1,506 single-family residential building permits were issued in Baldwin County, according to the Alabama Center for Real Estate at the University of Alabama. That was the third highest in the state behind the Huntsville-Madison area and greater Birmingham. It was also 16 percent higher than the same 11-month period in 2015.
The growth is obvious, and so are the growing pains. Traffic increases, schools become more crowded and residents of existing subdivisions protest when a new one comes in next door or across the road. Local governments are left to balance the need to maintain the quality of life that attracts people to the Eastern Shore against property rights, infrastructure needs and new revenue.
In Fairhope, literally hundreds of new single-family residential lots have been applied for over the last few months as city leaders debated the wisdom and practical impact of a moratorium on new subdivision applications. Amid growing concern about whether Fairhope’s sewer system can handle the growth, the City Council passed a six-month moratorium to study utility capacity as well as traffic impact and other issues.
But the months of uncertainty about whether there would be a moratorium triggered a run on that city’s Planning and Zoning Department. With so many subdivisions already approved or under construction, officials say it will be hard to tell that the moratorium exists.
“What you have now is, any time you have a subdivision going up next to an existing subdivision, you have those neighbors that don’t want it. It’s that ‘not in my backyard’ mentality. They’ve got their house. They don’t want anyone else to have a house,” said Ron Scott, in his fifth year of representing the Daphne City Council on its Planning Commission.
“I get a kick out of it, because I get people all the time that say, ‘When are we going to get an Outback, or when are we going to get a Chili’s, when are we going to get this?’ And those are the same people that when we add subdivisions are saying, ‘I don’t want any more people here.’”
One recent example is the proposed Blackstone Lakes, on a 75.3 acre-site owned by Fred Corte starting one-quarter mile east of County Road 13 in the Daphne planning jurisdiction. The subdivision will consist of 227 lots bounded by Corte Road (currently dirt) on the north side and the Bellaton subdivision to the east. Included are 34 lots that will become a senior living section. Bellaton fronts on Highway 181.
Among the objections raised by Bellaton residents was the effect on traffic flow through their subdivision. Bellaton was planned with two “stub-outs,” streets built to end in such a way that one day they can be connected to other streets. The new subdivision will be connected to Bellaton.
Blackstone argued that Bellaton residents would get direct access to County Road 13. Corte Road would be paved, and emergency vehicles as well as service vehicles such as garbage trucks would have improved access as well.
Both the Planning Commission and the City Council approved the Corte subdivision. Scott said some people don’t understand what local governments legally can and can’t do.
“There were two existing stub-outs from Bellaton, and the Bellaton people didn’t want the new subdivision to connect to their roads. Well, those aren’t their roads,” Scott said. “Those roads are the city of Daphne’s. That’s public right of way, and you cannot deny a property owner access to a public road. We had no choice.”
Another issue that’s become problematic is city versus county jurisdictions. New subdivisions are mostly to the east of Fairhope, Daphne and Spanish Fort, although Spanish Fort is also spreading north. Annexation has often been piecemeal — a developer who wants to be in the city limits may choose to be annexed while two more nearby subdivisions remain part of the county.
In at least one case, said Scott, a developer became so frustrated by the demands for changes made by an existing and neighboring subdivision that he decided to remain in the county and work with the Baldwin County Commission instead of being annexed into Daphne.
What Spanish Fort Mayor Mike McMillan calls “spotty” city limits has impeded that city’s efforts to control development along Highway 31. Two years ago Spanish Fort tried to annex those properties to to “square off” the eastern city limit; a vote on the measure failed narrowly.
Spanish Fort was able to annex some 12,000 acres along and north of Jimmy Faulkner road. The Highlands property is expected to take 30 years to be built out.
“What I can’t control is what the county approves,” McMillan said. “One thing we have always tried to do in Spanish Fort: Whenever a new subdivision, a new development, those kinds of things come into an area, we try to recognize that we don’t want to change the complexity of that existing neighborhood,” he said. “It’s not fair to those people who, most of them, that’s the largest investment they make.”
Unlike Fairhope and Daphne, Spanish Fort has no utility system of its own, so questions about capacity must be resolved among the private companies and the developer. Single-family housing growth has been in the double digits, he said.
Multi-family apartments are another matter. “We do have an overabundance of multi-family housing versus single-family housing. We have to be very conscious of that,” McMillan said.
About three years ago, McMillan said, he did a study on his own and discovered that in terms of multi-family versus single-family housing, Spanish Fort was higher than the Southeast and national averages. “We’ve consciously made an effort since then to control that,” he said.
Overall, McMillan expects that, because of the large amount of vacant land, Spanish Fort will become one of the fastest-growing cities in the county.
Achieving optimal growth
“If you have a community that’s not growing, it’s dying,” said Fran Druse, executive vice president of the Baldwin County Home Builders Association. “You don’t just lock the gates.”
She doesn’t consider the current proliferation of subdivisions and applications to be a “building boom,” but rather a case of steady growth since the end of the recession that led to a collapse of the real estate bubble in 2008.
Druse said Baldwin County’s quality of life and its public schools are attracting new homeowners, and builders don’t want to disturb those features of the Eastern Shore either. Most of them live in Baldwin County themselves, she said.
The association has consistently supported taxes for the public schools, Druse said. It awards scholarships to students and works with Habitat for Humanity to build homes for people who otherwise wouldn’t be able to own a home.
Through various fees charged to developers, home builders are an important source of revenue for local governments, she said. Also, new residents or those upgrading to a bigger house are consumers that buy products and services in the local economy, she said.
The availability of undeveloped land on the Eastern Shore and throughout Baldwin County is another attraction for builders, Druse said. In contrast, Mobile basically must go west.
The number of single-family building permits issued through November 2016 was far lower in greater Mobile, at 409. That’s about a 2½ percent decrease over the first 11 months of 2015.
Baldwin County public schools maintain a reputation of being better than Mobile County public schools, particularly on the Eastern Shore, said those interviewed for this story.
“So many are moving here because of our schools. Mobile County had eight failing schools,” Scott said. “A lot of this new migration is being driven by schools.”
McMillan said his biggest worry as the Eastern Shore spreads out is overcrowding in Spanish Fort schools.
There’s no sign that single-family residential development will slow down anytime soon. In the meantime, Fairhope is looking not just at utility capacity but at its whole system of subdivision regulation. Daphne, for its part, budgeted $30,000 this year to update its comprehensive plan that dates back to 2003. Scott notes that the current plan didn’t account for the growth that has occurred along Highway 181.
“They continue to put up houses, and they appear to be selling,” he said.