Every time a new resort condo complex is approved, a hue and cry goes up from the citizenry about how the beaches in Baldwin County are already overcrowded. New complexes, they say, will bring more and more traffic to an already overburdened infrastructure.
And every time, Orange Beach Mayor Tony Kennon comes back with the same response.
“There’s an argument out there to stop building condos or [impose] a moratorium on building,” Kennon said. “We say this over and over and almost every time we have a meeting that this is not a possibility. You can’t stop people from building on property what they have a right and are zoned to build on. You will get sued and lose gazillions of dollars.
“It really frustrates me to hear the chatter out there, especially on social media, that we need to stop building, we need to stop growth. It doesn’t work that way. As long as people want to build and they follow the rules, they can do it.”
Causing the latest uproar is the fourth new condominium complex from developer Brett-Robinson in four years. Fifth, if you count the buildings. Phoenix Gulf Towers is planned for west Orange Beach between Sugar Beach on the east and Palm Beach on the west. It will include two 26-story buildings, each with 96 units.
That’s not the only area of growth along the coast. In Orange Beach alone since January 2017, more than 843 subdivision lots or condo units have been approved. In 2017, 139 building permits were issued for single-family housing and through June of this year, 62 more have been issued.
Additionally, the Caribe Resort already has approval for more than 500 more units at its complex on the east side of Perdido Pass, owner Larry Wireman said. His plans to build a 160-unit Caribe on the Beach next to the Cotton Bayou Beach Access have been canceled.
On the books and approved before January 2017 are three towers on lots east of the Hampton Inn and near the intersection of Alabama State Route 161 and Route 182, the only intersection on beach road in town. Those condos – Grace, Ascension and Transcendence – would add a total of 443 units if developed. Ground has not been broken on any of these projects.
Gulf Shores is seeing even higher numbers. There are 21 subdivisions with a total of 1,614 single-family residential lots approved and ready for building. D.R. Horton is applying for 23 more lots in a subdivision on Wedgewood Drive that is phase III of an 85-lot subdivision already underway.
Another 931 units are approved for condo, apartment or vacation cottages for a total of 2,545. Included in those numbers are the 350-room Gulf State Park Lodge and a 98-room Best Western on East Beach Boulevard across the street from the beach.
Those numbers don’t include a new public-private venture to build a 229-room Embassy Suites hotel on a city-owned lot on West Beach Boulevard across the street from the Gulf. The city is giving DD Partners a $6.5 million tax rebate over eight years to help pay for meeting space in the new hotel.
All of this will attract more and more people on roads that are already clogged daily during the busy summer season. Vann Owens is a retired autoworker who drives a taxi amid all the traffic chaos. He says the main problems he sees are at the Flora-Bama and eastbound travel on Canal Road.
“I was trying to get a passenger to Indigo in Perdido Key and the back-up eastbound from the Flora-Bama was a mile and a half,” Owens said. “I turned around and went to 98 to Lillian and then went to Perdido Key that way. I’ve had to do that four or five times this year because of what the Bama is not addressing.”
Owens also has a route to miss the Canal Road headache, one many residents are using during the summer months.
“If I pick up somebody at Turquoise and take them to The Wharf and it’s backed up like that and it’s jammed and jammed and jammed, I circle back through Gulf Shores and the state park,” Owens said. “This year’s it’s been a nightmare out there.”
Owens says he understands there’s not much the city can do to stop someone who wants to build on property they’ve invested in and are building within the zoning laws.
“I think the City Council and the planning commission both can only do so much,” Owens said. “They just can’t stop things in its tracks. I know we don’t like it and I know we don’t like fighting this traffic that’s gotten tremendous this year because I’m all over the place. I think the City Council, they just can’t shut the door. I don’t like some of the things they do but this particular issue right here, I just don’t think they can do any different.”
Wireman says he knows adding units, whether it be at Caribe or the two towers Brett Robinson is planning in west Orange Beach, will increase the traffic on city streets. But he also says it’s seasonal.
“I’m probably the wrong person to ask because I’m in the condo business and I think traffic is fine,” Wireman said. “As far as the traffic goes, I’m not going to complain about the traffic. Somebody said it’s as bad as Atlanta and I say you haven’t been to Atlanta lately. It’s 100 days out of the year and the rest of the time nobody’s here. It’s a way of life anymore.”
There are more than 17,000 vacation condos, hotel rooms and beach houses in south Baldwin County. Orange Beach alone has 8,466 of the 14,567 condos with Gulf Shores having 4,519 and Fort Morgan 1,582. There are a total of 2,473 hotel rooms in Gulf Shores and Orange Beach and none in Fort Morgan.
Kennon and Mayor Robert Craft of Gulf Shores are both trying to come up with traffic fixes of their own, but the problem roads are controlled by the Alabama Department of Transportation.
Both towns recently voted to increase the lodging tax from 11 percent to 13 percent with the state getting 4 percent; each city collects 7 percent, and 2 percent goes to the island Convention and Visitors Bureau to woo tourists to vacation in both cities and the Fort Morgan peninsula.
Both cities say the extra funds — about $5 million for Orange Beach and just under $3 million for Gulf Shores — will be used for roads and the clean beach initiative, Leave Only Footprints.
On the Gulf Shores side, the state is moving ahead with property acquisitions for a new road from the Foley Beach Express south to a bridge over the Intracoastal Waterway east of the Gulf Shores airport. It will land on a Canal Road that is scheduled to be widened to five lanes using Restore Act money.
Gulf Shores also recently announced plans to pursue $46 million in grant money for a variety of traffic fixes, among them a third lane south over the State Route 59 bridge and a pedestrian bridge attached to the east side of the bridge.
A city delegation also visited officials in Washington, D.C., to pursue a grant in the Better Utilizing Investments to Leverage Development program, or BUILD. It takes the place of the former Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery, or TIGER, grants.
The project would cost a total of $46.1 million, with $25.1 million coming from BUILD funds, $21.6 from RESTORE Act funds and the city will kick in $3.4 million to pay for the design costs of the projects.
In Orange Beach, the city is moving forward with the Wolf Bay Bridge, a span that has been talked about for 25 years or more. The City Council recently voted to spend a little over $3 million on survey work as well as design, engineering and permitting to kick off the process leading to construction of the long-awaited span.
ALDOT is preparing to begin construction of a second eastbound lane from William Silvers Parkway to Alabama 161 on Canal Road. Moving utilities to make room for the lane will start when school is back in session and take until the start of the 2019 summer season, maybe longer.
It will include a complete rebuild of the Canal Road and Alabama 161 intersection with two sweeping turn lanes headed south, causing the removal of a Tom Thumb convenience store at the corner.
The biggest fix needed, most people agree, is a road through the state park.
“I don’t think in my lifetime there will ever be a road through the park to connect the beach with Canal Road,” Kennon said. “It is the most common-sense fix for our traffic. But the governor’s office, in a lawsuit with environmental groups over the lodge for Gulf State Park, signed an agreement not to build any new roads for 20 years.”
Orange Beach officials are saying improving an existing roadway which was the original road on the island to the beach, Powerline Road, would not go against the lawsuit.
“We all agree it is a road, Powerline Road and its continuation,” Kennon said. “But the state doesn’t recognize it as a road.”
PUD a bad word?
The cities sometimes get flack for approving planned unit developments (PUDs) that include changes or variances to the zoning regulations. Brett Robinson asked for some in each of the four buildings it is building or planning to
build in Orange Beach. Phoenix Orange Beach is nearing completion on the west side of the Hampton Inn and Phoenix Orange Beach II is a few stories out of the ground about a mile or so east of the Alabama 161 intersection.
There is a PUD to avoid a small zoning requirement, the incremental setback rule. Starting at a certain height, zoning calls for the building to be 10 feet narrower with each additional story.
Kennon insists that in the past most PUDs were efforts to increase density and squeeze in more units than allowed by zoning regulations.
“PUD is not a bad word in this context,” Kennon said. “This is the proper use of a PUD.”
In all the new Phoenix developments there were concessions, but the end result was buildings smaller than what the company could build by rights. In the case of Phoenix Gulf Towers, more than 1.16 million square feet of living space and 243 individual units would be allowed on the parcel
Instead, each building will have 96 units, or a total of 192 broken down into 24 two-bedroom units, 24 three-bedroom units and 48 four-bedroom units in each building and a total of 926,000 square feet.
“We’re reducing the overall number of units by 51,” Brett Robinson’s John Brett told the commission. “That’s 51 less three- and four-bedroom units and however many cars it takes to fill up those units. It’s 243,000 square feet smaller.”
In applications for each of the new Phoenix buildings, similar concessions were made reducing the number of allowed units and height of the projects.
Herb Malone, president and CEO of Gulf Shores and Orange Beach Tourism, says the Embassy Suites hotel will be used to provide a new tourism draw.
“Not only does Embassy Suites add more meeting space to the destination, but it also adds to our lodging inventory, which helps us to continue to attract more visitors who will shop at our stores, eat at our restaurants, book at our attractions and vacation here for years to come,” Malone said.
When Gulf Shores and island tourism officials looked at the plan submitted by DD Partners for the project they saw something was missing. Or, at least something they hoped would be included.
“It was us requiring they do some level of public meeting space to create meetings within the city that we do not have right now,” Craft said. “We have nothing that we can host a conference or convention within the city of that scale.”
Craft believes the meeting spaces in the hotel will attract a new segment of the tourism market.
“We’re excited for the opportunity to have this in our community and we think it will provide a broader season,” Craft said. “The convention and conference season is typically not in the middle of the summer. It’s in the shoulder season and we feel like this will give us a broader impact.”
Gulf Shores will give Embassy Suites a tax rebate of 42 percent during the first three years of operation and 35 percent every year following, until the $6.5 million is reached, or the basic cost of adding more than 11,000 square feet of meeting space including a 7,800-square-foot ballroom to the project.
“We’ve taken the cost of that floor and incentivized them to do that with that $6.5 million rebate on a certain level of taxes to get that done,” Craft said. “We felt like that was an important addition to the city but we didn’t give them money just for nothing. We gave them that to include that in their plan.”
City officials estimate they’ll reach the $6.5 million after eight years of operation. It does not include a rebate on any taxes earmarked for education, transportation projects or beach renourishment. Additionally, the company gets no breaks on permitting required by city codes including the building permit.
Even with the rebates, the city expects to still collect as much as $15 million in revenue from the project over its first 10 years of operation.
DD Partners will also give the city $1.2 million in cash to build 150 parking spaces in the Gulf Beach District and a $3.3 million letter of credit to secure the property for the project. Once the project begins, Economic Development Director Blake Phelps said, the letter will be returned. The company must start the project no later than July 2019 and complete construction by September 2021.
The city first sought partners in 2015 to develop a 1.93-acre parcel it owns on West Beach Boulevard behind the Alvin’s Island store, where Alabama Route 59 ends at the beach.
A study by Dr. Keivan Deravi from Auburn University-Montgomery said the new project will have a $65 million annual impact in the community. Officials said the entire project will cost about $85 million. There will be 229 rooms, a full-service spa, an indoor pool and a fitness center.
The crown jewel of the project is the 23,000-square-foot rooftop with views of Gulf Place beachfront and the Gulf. It will include a bar, a lounge and a grassy area for games and viewing events on the beach road and will be open to the public. The rooftop pool will be available to hotel guests only.