It seems the State of Alabama plans to move forward with the construction of a $58.5 million lodge and convention center at Gulf State Park, working through a federal judge’s ruling that has stalled the use of oil spill funds on the project.
In his ruling last Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Charles Butler said federal and state trustees overseeing the allocation of funds received in the immediate aftermath of the 2010 BP oil spill “clearly violated” two federal laws when they failed to properly evaluate reasonable alternatives to that particular part of the Gulf State Park enhancement currently underway in Gulf Shores.
In doing so, Butler said the trustees undermined the environmental impact assessment required when using early recovery funding after an environmental disaster — suggesting the study was viewed as a “foreordained formality.”
Despite Butler’s rebuke of the process that allowed the enhancement to obtain funding, it appears the construction will move forward using those same dollars anyway.“The court did not say that the $58.5M could not be used for the lodge, just that the trustees have to do an additional technical analysis before they can be,” Cooper Shattuck, the project’s spokesperson, said. “That analysis can be done before we need that $58.5M from a cash flow standpoint.”
The total project is estimated at around $85 million. That includes the lodge and convention center but also dune restoration efforts, trail enhancements and the construction of an environmental information center and learning campus within the park.
Shattuck said those other features will move forward while the trustees go back to redo some of the environmental analysis Butler said were “arbitrary and capricious” the first go around. Shattuck said the balance of funds needed to complete those projects would be made up from BP funding that has been previously allocated to the project.
In addition, Shattuck said Gov. Robert Bentley — whom Shattuck worked for previously and was appointed by to oversee the project — is still committed to using around $50 million from Alabama’s $1 billion settlement with BP for the project.
When asked, Shattuck said those would be specifically used for “the lodge and meeting space, and other park enhancements.”
Butler’s ruling stemmed from a year-long legal battle brought on by the Gulf Restoration Network (GRN), which challenged the use of BP funds to construct the lodge at Gulf State park.
GRN’s Executive Director Cyn Sarthou said “many things were damaged and destroyed by the BP oil disaster, but not one of those things was a hotel or a conference center.”
“We do not believe that this project is the best use of restoration funds,” she added. “Building a hotel and conference center will not restore any damage caused by the disaster. In fact, this project will limit access to the park’s beach for those unable to afford to stay in the lodge. Alabama should instead spend the money on restoring something that was actually impacted by the disaster in a way that will benefit all of the public.”
Executive Director of Mobile Baykeeper, Casi Callaway, spoke with Lagniappe about the state’s plan to continue the project on Tuesday.
While she can’t speak for GRN, Callaway said Baykeeper doesn’t support moving forward with the construction of a lodge using Natural Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA) funding because there are “more appropriate” funding options available.
NRDA funding comes down from the responsible entity immediately after any significant environmental damage occurs. Callaway said, NRDA projects also have to show a direct correlation to what was lost.
In this case, Alabama claimed the public lost access to its beaches.
While Callaway agreed beaches were inaccessible following the oil spill, she said building a hotel isn’t the way to make up for that — at least not using NRDA funding.
“Most people are not opposed to this all together because it would be an incredible place to have local conferences again,” Callaway said. “The issue is using money that was received because we lost accesses to our beaches to build a hotel that — unless you’re very wealthy — you can’t stay in.”
Callaway said making land acquisitions in areas “threatened by development” might be a better way to restore those lost resources in line with NRDA’s original intent.
Updated at 10:10 a.m., Feb. 24, to include comments from the Gulf Restoration Network’s Executive Director Cyn Sarthou.