A public hearing during Tuesday’s meeting of the Baldwin County Commission turned dark. Without amendments to the zoning ordinance to limit the height and density of residential structures along the Fort Morgan peninsula, a fire like the one that destroyed two homes on Ono Island last week could potentially kill 50 people or more, residents warned.
One resident, Paul Stanton, read a letter from Ernie Church to the commission. Church is the president of the board of directors of the Fort Morgan Volunteer Fire Department, and he strongly encouraged new limits.
“Our experience is, people who rent their homes will go to virtually any length to maximize bedroom count and sleeping numbers,” Church wrote. “We have seen cots on top of cots in hallways, bunk beds in rooms the size of closets and narrow stairs leading to attics filed with similar bedding. There are homes here where reasonable emergency access to attic areas and third stories is virtually impossible … causing unnecessary limitations on emergency responders who are there to potentially save lives, and it also endangers our firefighters.”
Church wrote that access is often also impaired by narrow streets and driveways at rental units clogged with multiple cars.
No one was injured in the Oct. 5 fire on Ono Island, but it burned for about 45 minutes before departments from Orange Beach, Gulf Shores and Escambia County, Florida, were able to arrive and bring it under control.
While Ono Island is densely populated, it comprises mostly single-family residential homes. Alternately, recent growth along Fort Morgan is currently concentrated around the 17-mile mark of the 20-mile-long peninsula, Stanton pointed out, and has largely been focused on rental units. Response times from assisting departments in Gulf Shores and Orange Beach could take 30 to 45 minutes.
Holding up a photo of a three-story house that was constructed under the existing High Density Residential (HDR) zoning designation, Stanton said: “This is what we’re talking about: A three-story beach house with 18 bedrooms, 18 bathrooms, two half-bathrooms. This is not a beach house. This is a hotel. And it’s a hotel without a parking lot, and it’s dangerous.” A separate photo showed the house surrounded by cars.
The commission was considering amendments to the Baldwin County Zoning Ordinance in Fort Morgan that would have removed the HDR zoning and established a two-story maximum building height for single family and two-family structures.
Thelma Strong, a member of the Fort Morgan Planning and Zoning Advisory Board, said the group has worked for nearly three years to get the amendments before the commission. She referred to the district as “a very fragile area, different from any zone in Baldwin County,” adding the restrictions were necessary for the “safety of our people and for the visitors.”
But not everyone was in favor.
Robert Isakson, whose family enterprise has constructed developments around the country and in Fort Morgan, said height should not be a factor.
“Certainly a fire department has more of an issue fighting a fire in a taller building, but on this peninsula, there’s over 500 buildings or lots currently exempt from this ordinance, where they are going to have to fight those fires anyway,” he said. “So perhaps we might look at another alternative. What we really have here is a pending disaster. One of my partners told me today he knows of a two-story building, it’s a duplex, and they sleep 28 in each side. That’s 56 people in a building that’s only two stories tall. So to me, the number of people and the use of a building is the issue.”
Isakson said a legislative amendment, passed sometime after 2010, actually prohibits the county from requiring sprinkler systems in residential houses, regardless of their capacity.
“To me, the issue is to figure out how to get sprinklers in these motels,” he said.
In lieu of passing the amendments, Isakson urged the commission to ask local legislators to require sprinkler systems based on capacity or, alternately, changing the definition of what is considered “residential.”
“Where are we all going to be when we have 50 people die in one house?” he asked. “Or God forbid, two houses like on Ono Island? One hundred people?”
Baldwin County Planning Director Vince Jackson said sprinklers are a good idea, but it’s one that can’t be fully addressed through zoning. Changes have to be made in the building code, he said. Further, Jackson said, occupancy limits can be “difficult to enforce” and the two-story height restriction was based on input from the fire department, but “is not a completely new concept.” Prior to 1999, there was a two-story height limit on the peninsula.
Commissioner Joe Davis said he was amazed some of the recent rental properties along the peninsula were ever approved, and he was concerned with occupants having the ability to escape from above a second story.
“This is the first step in correcting that,” he said.
County Commissioner Billie Jo Underwood said she was reluctant to consider any requirements that would put restrictions on how many people could live in a single-family residential structure, saying it could negatively affect traditional “multiple-generational homes.” But she also said she would consider looking at proposals to require sprinkler systems in the future.
Ultimately, the commission unanimously approved the limits, which also set new standards for the construction of dune walkovers in the district.
This page is available to our subscribers. Join us right now to get the latest local news from local reporters for local readers.
The best deal is found by clicking here. Click here right now to find out more. Check it out.
Already a member of the Lagniappe family? Sign in by clicking here