Photo | Shane Rice
It was sometime early last October and perhaps we were distracted. The Alabama Gulf Coast was picking up from Hurricane Sally. Hurricane Zeta would come a few weeks later, but the tropics remained active. COVID cases and deaths were increasing and Gov. Kay Ivey had just extended the “safer at home” order through November.
President Donald Trump had just been released from the hospital and the campaign season was reaching a crescendo. The weekend before, Alabama trounced Texas A&M on its way to another national championship.
And in Mobile County Probate Court, the deed to the entire unimproved west end of Dauphin Island — 838 acres of sandy beach stretching more than eight miles beyond the end of Bienville Boulevard — was transferred to the public realm in a $6.5 million deal between a private property owner and the federal government.
“We have a lot of things going on here that stay under the radar,” Dauphin Island Mayor Jeff Collier explained last week, rather nonchalantly, when asked about the landmark property acquisition. “That’s fine with us. We’re not doing things like this to tout it; we’re doing it because we think it’s the right thing to do.”
The west end has been in private hands since Dauphin Island was originally developed in the 1950s, just after the state obtained a $2 million bond to build the first bridge from the mainland. At the time, it was largely owned by former Congressman Frank Boykin, who along with other investors held the property through the Gulf Properties Corporation.
According to a memoir of Boykin written by a family member in 1973, the Mobile Chamber of Commerce organized a group to purchase most of the east end in 1954, with the goal of subdividing the property into at least 2,500 lots. The west end remained under private control and in 1996, was transferred to a company named West Dauphin LLC, which was registered to Riley Boykin Smith and Starr Lynn Boykin, the grandson and granddaughter of Frank Boykin.
Riley Boykin Smith is the former commissioner of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources under Gov. Don Siegelman and later was a commissioner at the Alabama Department of Environmental Management. Together, the Boykins also manage Tensaw Land & Timber Company, which owns more than 100,000 acres of timberland in Mobile and Washington counties, as well as several commercial and industrial developments. When Mobile County was looking for land for the Outokumpu steel plant in Calvert in 2007, the Boykins sold approximately 2,500 acres for the project.
Through the years, the treeless, windswept, west end of Dauphin Island has intermittently been targeted for development, according to Collier.
“A part of it was slated for development many years ago — maybe in the ’90s — when the owners had approached the county to develop a mile of beachfront homesites and they were looking to donate a mile of beachfront to the county if the county installed the infrastructure,” Collier recalled. “That did not get approved.”
Meanwhile, the west end was frequently battered by hurricanes including Katrina in 2005, which created a 1.5-mile-long breach in the sand, known as “Katrina Cut.” In 2010, the island was impacted by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, which deposited tons of gummy, noxious tar balls along the beach.
The cut was filled with rip-rap in a $13 million federally funded project in 2011 and when BP eventually entered into a $20 billion legal settlement for the oil spill, it paved the way for the west end’s public acquisition. It now joins a growing inventory of sensitive coastal property purchased with settlement funds.
“Land acquisition has been a priority after the oil spill,” Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources Commissioner Chris Blankenship said. “The Dauphin Island west end, obviously, is the largest stretch of undeveloped beachfront along the coast. It was important to get that in public ownership, but we have also secured the Grand Bay Savannah, which is 5,000 acres of coastal pine habitat in South Mobile County. Property along the Fort Morgan peninsula has been transferred to the [U.S. Department of the Interior]. We have made acquisitions in the Fish River and Weeks Bay watershed, and a major purchase along the Perdido River. From the Florida line to the Mississippi line, there have been some very important acquisitions to preserve that property for conservation or public access.”
For the birds
The west end of Dauphin Island has long been on a potential shopping list for conservationists, Blakenship said, but with BP settlement money on the table, officials wrestled with how to justify the purchase. Funding was available through several different state and federal sources, but the purchase had to meet very specific criteria, whether it was to preserve it for public use, enhance water quality, protect habitat or bolster economic activity.
In 2017, Mobile Baykeeper submitted a proposal to purchase the property to the Alabama Gulf Coast Recovery Council, which is responsible for spending nearly $1.5 billion in BP settlement funds over 15 years. In the proposal, Baykeeper claimed, “preservation of barrier islands enhances community resilience for all of coastal Alabama through mainland protection from flooding and reducing impacts from hurricanes, providing an even greater economic benefit to the state.”
“Even with challenges to developing this section of land, it is vitally important to pull it out of private hands and put it into public ownership,” the proposal read. “Overall, acquiring this parcel would provide several substantial benefits including habitat protection for [threatened] and endangered species, increase ecotourism and educational outreach opportunities, and ensure the protection of an important barrier island to valuable inland estuaries and vital economic resources.”
But the Alabama Gulf Coast Recovery Council never latched on. A report by the U.S. Geological Survey noted the west end was already “achieving significant environmental benefits in its current state” and advised there were “unknown costs associated with conservation.” Additionally, the report concluded the development of the west end “is not imminent because of the status as an Undeveloped Coastal Barrier (Coastal Barrier Resources Act status) and the cost of possible development.”
The Coastal Barrier Resources Act does not prohibit development of flood-prone areas on coastal barrier islands, but can restrict and delay it; the report was suggesting development was unlikely.
But Blankenship said other avenues of funding were explored before the proposal was positively received by the Alabama Trustee Implementation Group (TIG), a multiagency advisory committee in charge of a $295 million purse of BP settlement funds.
“The western end of Dauphin Island encompasses a diversity of coastal habitats — sweeping dunes, salt marsh and beach flats,” the application for the purchase noted. “Sea turtles and several bird species, including the federally listed piping plover, use these habitats. The beach and dune areas serve as nesting habitat for the least tern and the snowy plover. Public ownership of this large parcel will facilitate the protection and management of its habitats for the benefit of bird species injured by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The acquisition will include an appropriate land protection instrument to ensure that the purpose of restoration is maintained in perpetuity.”
The purchase was approved by TIG in December 2019 for a total price of $6,530,200. Blankenship said the U.S. Department of Treasury scrutinized the purchase, and the appraisal was reached using the “most stringent ‘Yellow Book’ standards.” TIG comprises the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, the Geological Survey of Alabama, the U.S. Department of the Interior, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
“Like most of our areas along the coast, the west end provides habitat for multiple species, but [TIG] just felt like the bird restoration type was the most appropriate for the acquisition because of all the different types of birds that nest down there,” Blankenship said.
The Boykin family did not respond to a request to comment for this article, but Blankenship said until the purchase, the west end remained under threat of development.
“It was possible some kind of off-grid type of construction could take place down there and in the future, there’s no guarantee that it couldn’t be rezoned or filled in for further full development,” he said. “So we felt like it was important to have that in public ownership for perpetuity.”
Ultimately, the project’s $7.9 million budget will include a conservation management plan implemented in partnership with the Mobile County Commission and other agencies. The town of Dauphin Island holds the deed to the property and earlier this year, expanded an adjacent parking lot to enhance access to the west end.
“It will stay in its natural state with passive use and access,” Mayor Collier said. “The management plan is not fully developed but it will essentially incorporate uses, signage, maintenance and other arrangements. As a barrier island, there is an environmental aspect to protecting the Mississippi Sounds and the mainland so what we’re doing has implications in other areas as well.”
Blakenship said today, more than 10 years after the oil spill, other settlement-funded projects are showing results as well. The Alabama Gulf Coast Recovery Council has allocated more than $324 million toward dozens of projects, providing funding for projects as diverse as upgrades to municipal sewer systems, economic development efforts, planning and resiliency. Separately, the Alabama TIG has allocated $150.8 million of the $177.6 million it has received from BP through the Natural Resource Damage Assessment program, the majority of which has focused on public use and environmental conservation.
“I just feel like, of the things that have the lasting impact — the generational impact that we wanted from this terrible disaster — the land conservation and acquisition will have the largest benefit, especially along the coast that is developing so quickly,” he said. “As these properties increasingly disappear, it’s critical to have that public access, habitat preservation and conservation.”
While the state-issued press releases for the purchases of the Grand Savannah property and Perdido River Wildlife Management Area, the west end acquisition has not yet been officially acknowledged. Blankenship said they are just waiting for the management plan to be approved.
“We plan to have a big press event in celebration of this project and other projects going on on the island later this summer,” he said. “There is a lot going on down there and the governor would like to be a part of it.”
Separate from the purchase of the west end, the town of Dauphin Island is also working to acquire other public facilities from the Dauphin Island Park and Beach Board, a 67-year-old organization that was disbanded by an act of the Legislature this year. The board holds the deeds on another 265 acres of parklands including Fort Gaines, Historic Fort Gaines, the East End Boat Launch and Fishing Pier, the Dauphin Island Campground, Audubon Bird Sanctuary, the Dauphin Island public beach and pier, and Cadillac Square. Jimmy Lyons, a member of the Park and Beach Board, said the board intends to transfer the properties to the town, which will create a Parks and Recreation Department to manage the facilities.
“The idea is to have a more comprehensive plan for amenities island-wide,” Lyons said. “We can fix most of the island and make it more friendly for full-time residents, property owners who rent, merchants and visitors.”
Lyons said the Park and Beach Board was the second-largest property owner on the island behind the Boykin family and soon, the 1,300 or so residents of Dauphin Island may hold more public property per capita than anywhere else in the state. He also noted the board records revenues of about $1.5 million annually through fees at Fort Gaines and the campground.
“We generate revenues above our needs every year and we have reserves that will transfer to the town,” he said. “One thing they can do that we cannot do is apply for matching grants, so they can fund much bigger projects. I think you’ll see a lot of improvements to the public parks on the island.”
In yet another development for the island, in May the Mobile County Commission approved a $30 million project to enhance the shoreline and habitat along the 3.3-mile-long Dauphin Island Causeway. According to a news release, the multiyear project “will restore tidal habitat along State Route 193 from Bayfront Park to Cedar Point,” protecting Dauphin Island’s “only access road from storm impacts and erosion and it will protect 280 acres of healthy, productive salt marsh habitat to the west side of the Dauphin Island Causeway upon which many of the state’s commercially and recreationally significant fish, shellfish and native bird populations rely.”
The project will be similar to wetland restoration projects at Bayou La Batre’s Lightning Point and SaltAire, another private property that was purchased for conservation reasons. The town is also attempting to use BP settlement money to develop Aloe Bay into a “working waterfront,” which Collier said will give the island more resilience from storms.
“We’re getting close to the design phase and we’re excited to see what that first draft will look like,” he said. “If done properly it will be of tremendous benefit to our community’s economic sustainability on an island quite vulnerable to storms. The idea is to have an economic zone in an area more sustainable so after the next storm we won’t be totally out of business.”
Lyons, the former director of the Alabama State Port Authority, recently moved to the island full time and can appreciate the vision. The town has long sought to achieve an identity as a low-key vacation destination, without substantial commercial or residential development.
“Dauphin Island is a rising tide and we want all the ships on the island to come up equally,” he said. “When I moved here, internet service was nonexistent, getting phone service was nearly impossible, but now we have almost complete coverage. People are building houses to better standards and some service businesses are open year-round. I remember a time after Hurricane Frederic when the entire island was crippled and more recently when it didn’t have power or basic goods and services for several weeks after a storm. We’re trying to prevent that from ever happening again.”
Collier said the west end and other property acquisitions will enhance the island’s character.
“We’re known as the sunset capital of the world and the west end provides miles and miles of undeveloped beach you can walk, fish … It’s full of seashells and, of course, unobstructed views of the sunset. It’s an honor for the town to own it and we just encourage the public to be good stewards of it so we can all work together to keep it in its pristine state.”
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