The Fairhope Board of Zoning Adjustments approved a special exception to allow a public utility in a residential area Thursday, against the opposition of residents of the neighboring Hawthorne Glenn subdivision. After a second public hearing on the subject, the board unanimously accepted the recommendations of planning department staff to allow the construction of an electrical substation at 8300 Morphy Ave., on a 2.9-acre residential parcel the city purchased in April for $250,000.
In years of discussion about expanding the city’s electrical grid — the nearby substation on Fairhope Avenue operates at 110 percent capacity and cannot grow — a different site behind the ABC store had been under primary consideration. But Mayor Sherry Sullivan, City Council President Jack Burrell and city staff members claim that site was unfeasible and other sites were unavailable.
Sullivan and Burrell were not at Thursday’s meeting, but Fairhope Building Official and Floodplain Administrator Eric Cortinas said the ABC site is designated as a floodplain on FEMA maps, and in addition to the price of filling the existing detention pond, the city would also have to seek federal approval to build there.
“My guess is it would be a high cost to fill it to an extent where it was adequately above the base flood elevation, then having an engineer submit a letter of revision [to FEMA],” he said.
Interim Electrical Superintendent Jeremy Morgan said the city considered at least three other sites, but owners wouldn’t sell.
Still, at least four residents spoke on behalf of the community about lingering concerns, including the substation’s effects on property values, health and quality of life. One speaker, Andrew King, said he’d like more disclosure about the city’s attempts to consider other sites and more assurance visual buffers will be provided. Trey Canida expressed his irritation with the substation’s potential light, noise and health effects. James McCarthy suggested planting the largest trees possible, rather than the juvenile trees in the city’s proposal.
Paul Ripp, a consumer advocate who does not live near the project area, alleged the city’s recent purchase of the property and plans to build the substation there was “political payback” for the seller, Kathy Hoffren, who Ripp claims once circulated a petition to ask former Mayor Karin Wilson to resign. Ripp pointed out that the city bought the 2.9-acre property for $40,000 under its $290,000 list price in April. Closing documents indicate Hoffren had a $200,000 mortgage on the property, and netted just $19,000 on the sale.
Board member Dick Schneider got defensive, arguing the city has “made a very commendable attempt” to address residents’ concerns, but suggesting the concerns themselves were unfounded.
“Everybody has a complaint about any new thing coming in,” he said. “They don’t like pipelines. They don’t want any more hydropower. Nobody wants to see another shopping center built … but there’s nothing you can do about it. [This site] is very desirable. It’s a wonderful site. I don’t see a lot of realism in the complaints.”
Ultimately, the board voted 4-0 to pass the motion, on the conditions the city plants the “largest trees possible,” attempts to shield residences from the lighting on the site and enforces a 20-foot buffer on Morphy Avenue. Members John Avent, Anil Vera and Cathy Slagle concurred.
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