The Baldwin County Commission is considering amendments to the county’s master plan, which could eventually include the introduction of impact fees, according to County Administrator Wayne Dyess. But before any fee discussion moves forward, the commission will focus on updating subdivision regulations in zoned areas and increasing coordination with municipalities in extraterritorial planning jurisdictions, he said.
As new residents have flooded Baldwin County in the past two decades, comprehensive planning has been slow to keep up. But it’s not for lack of effort.
Since August 1991, when the state Legislature passed the Baldwin County Planning and Zoning Act, local officials have had the legal framework necessary to establish the Baldwin County Planning and Zoning Commission and Boards of Adjustment; create planning districts within unincorporated areas; allow zoning within planning districts and require the creation of a “master plan” for the regulation of development of unincorporated areas.
As Dyess explained, from his initial position as the county’s planning director from 2000-2010 until his return as administrator earlier this year, the latter portion of that framework has been carried out in fits and starts.
“The county had a master plan, I think beginning back in the ‘90s,” he said. “It was a very general master plan that didn’t provide a great deal of guidance for a developer, the public or an elected official trying to make determinations about land use. But at that time, there were so few areas in the county that were zoned and the master plan only applies in the zoned areas.”
While perhaps as much as two-fifths of the county was eventually divided into planning districts between 1993 and 2009, more than half of it remains unzoned remains unzoned today, including high-growth areas east of Fairhope, around central Baldwin County and north of Spanish Fort and Loxley.
“With the increase in zoning districts, it became more of a pressing issue that we needed to put together a more modern growth plan for the county,” Dyess said. “And that’s why in 2006, the Commission hired a firm to develop a strategic plan … and that covered various topics regarding county government, but one of those issues identified was growth and the need for a growth plan.”
After the strategic plan was adopted in 2006, the county bid for and subsequently hired a consultant to create a new master plan. With guidance from both the county and planning commissions, along with input from citizens and business interests at public hearings, the plan was adopted in 2009.
A first of its kind in the state, the plan known as Horizon 2025 was a policy-based approach with a stated goal “to effectively manage growth and development in Baldwin County by designating areas of anticipated future development which satisfy demand where feasible, in a cost-efficient and environmentally acceptable manner; to ensure the county continues to provide an excellent quality of life and family-friendly communities; to ensure the needs of the elderly are met; to preserve and protect natural resources; and to preserve its unique heritage and Southern hospitality.”
In addition to zoning districts based on geography, Horizon 2025 sought to regulate land use under designations such as conservation, agriculture, coastal zones, residential, high- and low-density urban districts and special districts. Among other things, it also detailed objectives to “protect natural resources, environmental lands, and coastal resources … protect and enhance the county’s shoreline and coastal areas … coordinate the land use plan with the Major Roadway Plan” and included several proposed policies to “encourage economic development” and “expand job opportunities, investments and production opportunities, and a balanced and sufficient tax base.”
Policies within the plan would have also regulated air emissions, water quality, sewage treatment, noise and odors and buffering and screening from new industries. It would have also encouraged affordable housing and investment in transportation infrastructure and other public services.
Costing the county a total of $280,000 to create, Horizon 2025 reportedly won the 2010 Outstanding Planning Award from the Alabama chapter of American Planning Association. But in 2012, before it was ever fully implemented, Horizon 2025 was thrown in the trash.
“It was a very detailed plan, probably poorly timed … but soon thereafter you had a recession, the housing bubble burst and you had the oil spill,” Dyess recalled. “That by itself stunted the growth in the county and then any kind of additional regulation was seen as further stunting the growth, so some time after I left in 2010 it was repealed.”
What Dyess was not there to witness was the political backlash that mounted to rescind Horizon 2025. Acting on a Tea Party theory that such plans are connected to a 1990s-era United Nations environmental and property policy known as Agenda 21, then-State Sen. Gerald Dial passed a bill in 2012 that was signed into law by Gov. Robert Bentley preventing the state, counties or any municipality from “adopt[ing] or implement[ing] policy recommendations that deliberately or inadvertently infringe or restrict private property rights without due process, as may be required by policy recommendations originating in, or traceable to ‘Agenda 21.’”
Back in Bay Minette, on Aug. 7, 2012, nearly three dozen people voiced their opinions in a five-hour long public hearing on the proposed repeal of Horizon 2025. Minutes from the meeting captured some of the controversy surrounding the plan, including such concerns as it “violat[ing] the basic rights of Baldwin County citizens,” and “regulat[ing] every square inch of land and every drop of water in Baldwin County.”
There were also nods to potential implications it may have on issues such as eminent domain, free speech, religious freedom and the Second Amendment. One resident of Fairhope even recited his own patriotic poetry and presented the commission with a copy of “The Communist Manifesto.”
When the public hearing was closed, Commissioners Frank Burt, Bob James and Tucker Dorsey voted in favor of killing Horizon 2025. Skip Gruber, the only commissioner who still serves on the commission today, voted to keep it.
“I know it was controversial and a lot of people didn’t like it, but it was still a good plan overall,” Gruber explained last week. “If they would have went back and did some revisions, the plan still would’ve fit. But it was decided to completely do away with it.”
So, with four years of planning thrown in the trash just as Baldwin County was on the cusp of unprecedented growth, the county “went back to the 2006 plan,” Gruber recalled. “[We] did some revisions to it to make it more compatible, but it was nothing like [Horizon 2025].”
Horizon 2025 was the county’s answer to growth in the early 2000s, Dyess emphasized, but it was also seen as an impediment to growth in an economy that was trending downward at the time. The 2006 plan has been amended a number of times since the county fell back on it, but shortcomings remain.
“So now we’re back again, in another growth cycle, and I think we need to have a plan that provides, basically … a stable, predictable, and fair development process,” he said. “We realize that we have growth occurring and we have to accommodate that and do it in a way that’s effective and efficient, in a way that enhances and not hurts the county, and in a way that’s an asset to the people who own property and the people who live near it. So that’s kind of our whole goal.”
The new request for proposals will most likely be limited to seeking guidance on subdivision regulations and growth plans, particularly in areas surrounding municipalities.
“We plan to work very closely with cities to see what their vision is and how that meshes together with the county’s desires in these areas that are in the county and zoned, but also in the extraterritorial jurisdictions so we can kind of come to a shared shared vision about how they want to see their city grow,” Dyess said. “Then also, we have basically unincorporated communities like Lillian, for example, which has a commercial center and dwellings around it, so that will have to be looked at to try to … enhance walkability in those areas … it will all be about what citizens desire from a livability standpoint.”
Baldwin County’s 2006 strategic plan explicitly stated “the County will implement a process to collect impact fees and begin collection in 2007” but again, Dyess said the policy was never implemented due to the recession.
In 2008, however, the county did publish a feasibility study authored by economic planning consultant TischlerBise. Although it was based on projections, the study suggests the county — by not implementing the fees — may have dismissed an opportunity to collect as much as $6 million per year toward transportation improvements, or a total of more than $73.1 million between the years 2009-2020.
Additionally, it indicated the county could have collected $3.28 million for recreational upgrades over a five-year period and remarkably, as much as $96 million for public schools over the same five-year period.
“Growth-related school improvements needed to accommodate countywide residential development are projected to cost approximately $32.6 million per year,” the study found. “At the maximum supportable level, impact fees will cover almost 60 percent of the costs for services identified in the study.”
Impact fees “are one-time payments used to fund system improvements needed to accommodate new development,” the study explained, stating the county’s enabling legislation permits such fees to be expended on roads, recreational facilities and schools. But “because [the] legislation limits an impact fee to 1 percent of the estimated fair and reasonable market value of the new development after completion,” the consultant suggested they were not a reliable source of revenue for schools.
Instead, in early 2017, the County Commission passed a separate plan to bolster school funding by permanently extending a penny sales tax and as a result, the school system can rely on around $40 million per year, which is currently being allocated toward a capital building campaign.
Voters have also since approved other sources of funding and in September, referendums are scheduled in Fairhope and Spanish Fort to levy an additional 10-mil property taxes on residents there to generate even more funds for schools in those districts.
Separately, with new students continuing to pour in, State Sen. Chris Elliott earlier this year introduced a bill that would have required county and city planning officials to include school officials in planning discussions about potential impacts of growth. Formerly a county commissioner, Elliott also introduced a bill to roll back extraterritorial jurisdictions to municipal corporate limits. Both bills stalled in the House of Representatives.
Meanwhile, after it was approved in a special session this year, Gov. Kay Ivey signed the Rebuild Alabama Act, a gas tax increase aimed at funding transportation improvements. The Association of County Commissions of Alabama estimated that when fully implemented, the new gas tax will generate $2,132,561 for Baldwin County. That’s just one-third of the revenue a maximum impact fee would have generated.
Gruber acknowledged that if the Baldwin County Commission would have upheld Horizon 2025 and implemented the maximum allowable impact fees at the time they were initially proposed, recent tax increases and planning problems may have been avoided, abated or complemented.
“There’s no doubt a lot could’ve happened, but the bad part about it is, those [opportunities] were basically thrown out the door,” Gruber said. Still, he admits he’d be reluctant to consider impact fees, knowing that even though they are charged to developers, they would certainly be passed on to consumers.
Dyess said there are pros and cons to impact fees, but reiterated they weren’t a topic of much discussion during the Commission’s July 23 work session.
“The upside is you’re able to collect a little bit of money to offset some of the infrastructure costs, the downside is it may affect home values and cause the prices to rise,” he said. “So that’s one of the things you have to balance out and determine if it’s beneficial. As we all know, affordable housing is an issue in Baldwin County and I think we don’t want to push the housing prices higher. And there is some concern impact fees could do just that. But the discussion was really more about, ‘here it is and here’s how it works.’ I think the feeling I got leaving the work session is the commission is going to focus on the master plan first, and then we’ll see how [impact fees] fit into that.”
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