Despite an outcry from a vocal group of residents of some of Fairhope’s high-end subdivisions, coupled with environmental concerns about Fly Creek from others, plans for a “luxury” apartment development will move forward at the intersection of Parker Road and U.S. 98 behind the Publix-anchored Shoppes at Fairhope Village shopping center.
The development, known as The Retreat at Fairhope Village, will have 240 units with rents ranging from $1,000 to $1,600 for one-, two- and three-bedroom apartments. On April 11, the Fairhope City Council voted 3-2 to change approximately 39 acres in the so-called Fly Creek Planned Unit Development (PUD) to allow the apartments instead of the townhomes and condominiums approved in 2006.
Councilmen Jack Burrell and Mike Ford voted against the PUD changes while Diana Brewer, Kevin Boone and Rich Mueller voted for approval.
A visibly upset Brewer said she was trying to weigh the residents’ concerns against what she said are the positive aspects of the project. According to Brewer, 364 single-family homes were built in Fairhope between April 2015 and this month, and 92 of them were within a half-mile radius of each other.
Brewer said the numbers show the city is growing and access to different types of housing would be beneficial to the community.
“I keep hearing people saying these apartments are going to cause an influx of traffic, but we already have that,” Brewer said. “We are already experiencing a lot of growth in a major way in Fairhope. We have increased traffic on 98, and there is already overcrowding in our schools. To have a different type of home available to people in Fairhope doesn’t bother me as much as what I’m hearing from other people. I’m trying to reconcile what I’m hearing from these residents with what I see in our city.”
After a short recess, Brewer did not return until the end of the meeting.
In opposing the development, Council President Jack Burrell said he is worried the project will change the nature of Fairhope, which he said has long valued homeownership over renting.
“I just don’t see the need to change the makeup of Fairhope,” Burrell said. “I’ve heard many people say they just want to keep Fairhope Fairhope, but I don’t see how you can do that with this development. This goes against the mantra … ”
Residents from Rock Creek, Sandy Ford and the Woodlands — all located within a few miles of the development — decried the idea of having an apartment development near their homes. Terryl Reeves, a Realtor and Sandy Ford resident, echoed others’ concern that people who rent apartments don’t have a stake in the community.
“I don’t understand why this is good for the community, to lower the bar for entry here … ” Reeves said. “People who can leave town at the drop of a hat, only paying back a deposit, don’t have the same commitment to the town as someone who worked hard and saved up to purchase a home.”
Others, like attorney Adam Milam, opposed the development because of environmental concerns. Milam represented homeowners in a 2009 lawsuit against the city of Fairhope and the developers of the Shoppes at Fairhope Village because of environmental damage to Fly Creek during the shopping center’s construction. The city was eventually dismissed from the suit and the remaining parties reached a confidential settlement.
Milam cited the city’s red clay and land disturbance ordinances as reasons the City Council should reject the project.
“I don’t see how anyone here can say this won’t violate the ordinances, specifically with regards to Fly Creek,” Milam said. “If this is approved, then is there any project the council would not approve?”
However, planning department attorney Chris Gill argued the red clay ordinance only prohibits developers from bringing red clay to a site within 100 feet of any environmentally sensitive area such as a wetland, which he said won’t apply in this case. Gill also said the development would not violate the wetlands disturbance ordinance unless they develop within a designated wetlands area.
According to Rock Creek’s Lynn Maser, the apartments will only further the damage done during the Publix construction.
“We must maintain Fly Creek in the best condition possible,” Maser said. “Do these apartments really meet the needs of people who need living space in Fairhope? If we need apartments to meet needs of lower-income people, then let’s build that for them, in a place with less environmental concern. Do not let Fairhope evolve conveniently, let it evolve properly.”
City officials have said the proposed apartment development is in line with the “village center” concept in the city’s comprehensive plan, one seeking to develop smaller, pedestrian-friendly commercial areas surrounded by residential centers and connected by bike paths, sidewalks and parks.
In a letter to Planning Director Jonathan Smith, developer Stewart Speed of the Mississippi-based Leaf River Group told the city the company would self-impose environmental rules that are more restrictive than city regulations.
According to Speed’s letter, Leaf River Group will acquire a $2 million environmental insurance policy to cover any potential damages incurred during construction for 24 months, while construction will last approximately 16 months. The developer will also agree that if it does not apply for the required municipal building permits within one year, the PUD will revert to its previous form.
The letter also says Leaf River Group will comply with the existing red clay and wetlands disturbance ordinances and will review all construction and paving practices with city staff during development.
“We are willing to agree to unprecedented environmental safeguards that no one else in Fairhope has been asked to commit to,” Speed said.
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