Is it an October surprise in May?
Tony Kennon’s not so sure.
“When’s the election?” Mayor Kennon asked at a May 15 Orange Beach City Council meeting. “Three weeks?”
Earlier on the same day the Baldwin County Commission went into executive session and emerged to say it was filing a letter of intent to buy 40 acres to build a 12-ramp boat launch within the Orange Beach city limits. The land is on the north side of the Intracoastal Waterway, just west of the Foley Beach Express toll bridge.
“I am curious to know right now how they can come up with $10 million when for years we’ve been trying to get them to help us with a boat launch on the south side, which is where we really need it,” Kennon said. “And we’ve never gotten any help.”
Kennon said the announcement by the county on May 15 was the first time Orange Beach officials had heard of boat launch plans for the site.
“The announcement of a boat launch on the north side caught all of us off guard because we knew nothing about it,” Kennon said. “No one consulted us, no one talked to us about whether it was a good idea, bad idea.”
Commissioner Chris Elliott said the county has been working on the ramp for at least eight months and submitted it as a project seeking RESTORE Act money on Dec. 6.
“Mayor Kennon has served on the RESTORE Council since its inception and should be intimate with every project in this portal,” Elliott said.
Elliott also said the timing is because of the release of Gulf of Mexico Energy Securities Act money from the Department of the Interior to four Gulf states, basically royalties for offshore oil and gas well leases. Alabama’s portion of the $188 million is about $26 million.
“This project has been carefully timed to coincide with the announcement of GOMESA funding availability, and because of that careful timing Baldwin County is first in line to get our share of GOMESA funding for this project’s acquisition and construction,” Elliott said. “Design work has already been completed and engineering work will begin shortly. This project is the result of long-term strategic planning by the County Commission, DCNR [state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources] and the governor’s office.”
Kennon questioned that timing with the June 5 primary looming. Two of his councilmen are running against two of the sitting commissioners. Jeff Boyd is in a field of four other Republicans in the State Senate District 32 race including Elliott. Orange Beach Councilman Jerry Johnson is the only candidate facing longtime incumbent County Commissioner Skip Gruber in District 4. Both of the other county commissioners — Frank Burt in District 1 and Tucker Dorsey in District 3 — are also running for re-election.
“So, there’s a letter of intent to buy the property with GOMESA money if they can get it?” Kennon asked. “Three weeks before the election? It speaks it for itself. You hate to look a gift horse in the mouth but at the same time there’s a principle here that bothers me.”
The boat ramp saga in Orange Beach is a long and storied one, including an effort since the 1970s to build one east of the Caribe condos on state land. It’s been killed several times by different parties, mostly Ono Islanders who don’t want to look over Old River at a boat launch.
“At that time the governor kicked it back to the County Commission, and the County Commission was split 2-2 and it died,” Kennon said. “We got absolutely no support. That’s where we need a boat ramp.”
That launch would be a short ride to the mouth of Perdido Pass and the Gulf of Mexico. From the proposed site on the Intracoastal Waterway a veteran charter captain told Lagniappe it can take from 30 minutes to an hour and a half to reach the Gulf from the toll bridge area, and there are several no-wake zones along the way.
County Administrator Ron Cink said the commission has been exploring options in South Baldwin for ramps for years.
“Skip Gruber has been looking all over the place down there trying to find a piece of ground either on Bon Secour or anywhere down there along the Intracoastal that the county could put in a good ramp,” Cink said. “There’s been several sites that have been looked at where we just couldn’t make it fly.”
Cink said the entire project would cost about $10.5 million, with land representing $6 million of that total.
“The initial thought is that the state would fund it out of their GOMESA money,” Cink said of the project. The Department of the Interior distributed more than $26 million in GOMESA money to Alabama on April 2,6 with Baldwin County’s portion being about $2.4 million, Cink said.
Kennon said the land was previously planned to be used for a condo complex, but that was scuttled during the recession of 2007-08. According to Baldwin County tax records, there are two parcels in the indicated area on the county’s map that are owned by Forty Seven Canal Place LLC with a Memphis address.
If the purchase goes through, the county will then have to begin the permitting process through the Army Corps of Engineers.
“The Corps must evaluate the application for purpose and need,” Lisa Taylor, chief public affairs officer for the Corps, wrote in an email response. “At this time, the Mobile District does not have any applications from an applicant.”
Among the considerations will be the effects of an influx of 450 possible boats in the Intracoastal Waterway shipping lane and its proximity to the toll bridge. Evaluations will begin when the county starts the permitting process, Taylor wrote.
“The benefit which reasonably may be expected to accrue from the proposal must be balanced against its reasonably foreseeable detriments,” Taylor wrote.