The Fly Creek upscale apartment development was a key issue in last year’s Fairhope municipal elections, costing some city leaders their offices. At least some voters hoped with a new mayor and three new council members the controversial apartments to be built behind Publix would go away.
That’s not what happened Monday when a crucial extension of time to get the project moving was approved on a 4-1 vote.
Only Councilman Jimmy Conyers voted to deny the extension. Other councilors said regardless of their personal opinions on the project, the city’s own temporary moratorium on new subdivisions blocked the developer from getting a multiple occupancy site plan approved before the 12-month deadline of Tuesday, April 11.
A site plan submitted last year was denied by the Planning and Zoning Commission in the fall. When the council subsequently approved the subdivision moratorium, it took four months off the 12 months the developer originally had to present a new plan.
The Fly Creek project has been staunchly opposed by residents of nearby residential subdivisions as well as residents who live along Fly Creek and worry the apartments will increase the chances of flood or siltation in an environmentally sensitive area. A group of residents filed a lawsuit in Baldwin County Circuit Court to try to stop the project.
As is usual when the Leaf River Group project comes up in a public setting, the City Council meeting was standing room only. The jump in attendance and public participation since Mayor Karin Wilson took office in November has led to an on-screen monitor being set up in the lobby to accommodate the overflow of citizens.
With another controversial and long-standing project in Battles Wharf also on the agenda, City Council President Jack Burrell was obliged to ensure everyone in the lobby had an opportunity to speak as well.
Recently, before meetings begin the city’s rules regarding public participation and good conduct at meetings have been posted on the video monitors. When Paul Ripp, a local blogger, commented Monday he hoped the same rules applied to Burrell, Police Chief Joe Petties strode to the microphone to say that he, not Burrell, was responsible for posting the rules.
“We’ve been having people coming in here and act like they’re children,” Petties said. It’s his responsibility to keep the meetings safe and orderly, he said, and doing so would be easier if everyone acted like adults.
Many of the people who spoke against the extension had been heard from before.
Judy Bond said she had been pleased with the new council and administration until now. “I really don’t want to have to change my mind,” she said. “Do the right thing.”
Riley Murphy, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, said a similar luxury apartment project in Daphne opened in July and occupancy had yet to reach 50 percent. He said the market could be saturated on the Eastern Shore.
Bay Minette Mayor Bob Wills is also an attorney representing property owner Arthur Corte and the Leaf River Group. He said the developer has met and exceeded all city requirements. Opponents do not have all the facts, he said.
Council members were conflicted about the Fly Creek project despite the strong majority vote. Burrell, for example, said he originally voted against it, but the question they were voting on Monday was the fairness of giving it an extension on site-plan approval. Whether the project itself should exist was a question that had been settled, he said.
Councilman Jay Robinson said the group also had to consider the possibility of a second lawsuit, this time by Corte and the developer, if no extension was granted. Or they could check on whether Daphne would take on the development and annex it, in which case Fairhope would get none of the tax revenue but residents would still have to live with its drawbacks.
Voting either way on giving an extension to the Fly Creek planned unit development carries legal and political risks. The project may well have cost former Mayor Tim Kant his seat. Will the new council members and mayor face similar fallout?