It could just be a coincidence, but two weeks after Fairhope City Council President Robert Burrell and Mayor Karin Wilson traded barbs at a contentious meeting that lasted three and a half hours, both were absent for the June 10 meeting. It was called to order and adjourned in less than 30 minutes.
Granted, three items were pulled from the agenda before the meeting began. One, a site plan review and approval of a boutique hotel on the corner of Fairhope Avenue and Section Street, was pulled at the request of the developer, Matt Bowers of Louisiana. The same item was on the May 27 agenda, but the council tabled it, citing a flood of emails from concerned residents.
Last weekend, Bowers called Lagniappe to recap his experience attempting to build the hotel, saying he and the council had yet to reach an agreement on the primary issue holding it up.
“This is f*cking crazy,” he said. “I got blackmailed effectively and extorted. I went through all the emotions, then thought, ‘What am I going to do?’”
In a process that began in December, Bowers’ proposal originally sought height and use variances from the Fairhope Zoning Board of Adjustments. While the board granted his request to use the property for a hotel, it stalled on a decision to allow the building to have four floors within the city’s maximum 40-foot height restriction.
Bowers conceded and returned with a plan to lower the height of the building and reduce it to three floors. After discussions with planning staff, neighboring property owners and elected officials, the site plan was approved by the Planning Commission May 6.Throughout the process though, concern was expressed that the footprint of the hotel would infringe upon existing open space, namely a small courtyard around the city’s “Fairhope” clock. Suggestions had been made for Bowers to simply “swap” a small pocket park on Section Street for his property on Fairhope Avenue, effectively inversing the footprint of his building from a backwards “L” to an upside-down, backwards “L.”
But it was only a suggestion, and no one from the city ever contacted him to follow up, Bowers said.
“I was going into the meeting and I was talking to the architect and the builder and said, ‘This is going to be really uneventful,’” he said.
But when the site plan was introduced, Councilman Jay Robinson focused on a PowerPoint slide outlining the “overall benefit to the community.” The slide included a statement requested as part of follow-up correspondence with staff:
“Our vision is to design a building that is timeless in nature in hopes that it is viewed by visitors and locals as a building that could be decades old and just may have been the old Fairhope Hotel located on what we acknowledge is the most important corner of town. The use of a boutique hotel does not currently exist in downtown and it provides a use not currently being filled. We are excited about the quaint size of the hotel. Our vision is that each room may be decorated in a theme or history of Fairhope and that it will put people on the street spending time and money in our wonderful town.”
“When he did that, I leaned over to the builder and said, ‘We’re in trouble,’” Bowers said.
Rejecting pleas from both Bowers and architect Clay Adams, who has designed dozens of other buildings in downtown Fairhope, the council ultimately voted to table the approval to negotiate the swap.
“It’s not as simple as swapping — take this for this,” Bowers said, explaining that a reconfiguration of the hotel would limit his exposure on Fairhope Avenue, prevent some guest rooms from having ample natural light and force the relocation of a utility closet to a less efficient space.
“It takes a small building and makes it worse, because you can’t use it for the same uses,” he said.
Robinson acknowledged during the meeting that “it probably wasn’t fair,” but pledged to make a good-faith effort to negotiate. On Tuesday, he said he was “disappointed” to hear Bowers’ remarks, but the council is attempting to “make sure we cover every option and put ourselves in the best position to make the best decision for everybody.”
“The council’s ultimate decision-making authority is to grant projects that fit within the comprehensive plan, based on recommendations from the Planning Commission, but the council goes one step further to investigate and determine whether this particular project has a positive impact and whether that impact has any public detriment,” Robinson said.
Robinson said he knew it wasn’t going to be as easy as a simple swap, but as of Tuesday, he didn’t know where negotiations stood.
For his part, Bowers said, “As of [Friday], I looked at the prospects. I said I will do it, but I’m going to need to be compensated or subsidized or something, because I can’t make a financial decision and take on guaranteed debt around something I know is not as good or what will be less valuable. They are attempting to control this by placing, effectively, an emotional deed restriction on it, which I was unaware of when I bought it.”
Still, while Bowers’ attorney said last week they were “prepared if necessary to pursue whatever legal remedies are available,” Bowers said he was willing to entertain the council’s offers.
“[The council] pulled a card that they can act to deny a project they believe is not benefiting the community as a whole,” he said. “But let’s say they say ‘no’ to this project and use that as an excuse. Would a flower shop serve the community as a whole? Would a burrito shop or an eggroll place? Or what if I build a building that the citizens can design, and the building will serve the purpose of saving orphans from axe murderers? I have a feeling that no matter what I propose, there is some emotional or unspoken deed restriction or easement on this property that is not in any sort of zoning ordinance or anything else, and I think I was just the last guy to know it. If that’s the case, fine. But I don’t need to be hurt by this … Every step of the way there’s been monkeying around and intervention from people that’s contrary to the process.”
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