Land once reserved for development at the exclusive SaltAire community could soon be in the hands of the public as the Mobile County Commission finalizes a $3.6 million agreement to purchase 233 acres of coastal property using BP funds related to the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
Located on the western shore of Mobile Bay, SaltAire was once believed to hold the same potential in Mobile County as Fairhope and other upscale communities along the Eastern Shore.
However, as the housing market crashed and property values plummeted, the real estate venture was halted after the project’s lender, Regions Bank, backed out. Developer Mobile Bay Investments LLC filed two successful lawsuits against the bank and received millions in compensation.However, the plans for development never fully recovered and Mobile Bay Investments and Ole Fowl River LLC are now finalizing the sale of 233 acres of the property to Mobile County — a $3.6 million land acquisition utilizing BP funds through the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.
According to state business records, Mobile Bay Investments and Ole Fowl River are both incorporated by Logan U. Gewin, who Lagniappe was unable to reach for comment for this story.
The County Commission unanimously accepted the NFWF grant and agreed to proceed with the purchase of the property during its March 14 meeting. Commission President Jerry Carl said he was sold on the idea the first time he walked the property.
“The first thing [our staff] pointed out to me was the erosion factor there on Fowl River,” Carl said. “With some of the money we’ll get, they will actually be able to replace some of that marshland and bring back some of the crab, shrimp and things that our seafood industry are so linked to.”
The habitat of the shoreline, marshlands and surrounding areas are what Mobile County Environmental Services Director Bill Melton says make the property worth protecting from future development.
“The idea was that it was going to be developed, and half of it was. This half was not. So, we took this opportunity to preserve it — to save it, basically,” he said. “This is the first [land] acquisition project in Alabama that’s been approved with BP money, but we’re headed toward the restoration of the property.”
The grant will cover the cost of the land acquisition, but also includes around $800,000 that will fund environmental assessments of the property. Those studies, Melton said, should lay the groundwork for other “shovel-ready” projects the county could seek funding for in the future.
“We’re going to do some assessments and baseline evaluations of the habitat and wildlife to get those in a position to ask for future BP funds or NFWF funds,” he added.
The assessments will ultimately determine what type of projects the county may request funding for in the future, but Melton and Environmental Grants Director Tina Sanchez said shoreline restoration and living shoreline projects would likely be a priority — possible fixes for the erosion issue Carl referenced.
By the county’s estimate, around 150 feet of shoreline has been lost on the property during the past 50 years, which Melton said is common for areas on the western side of Mobile Bay.
“Along the bay — in this area and south all the way to the Alabama Port — if the shoreline has not been protected, then it’s disappearing. If you look at this property, you can easily see what has disappeared,” Melton said. “Unless something takes place to protect it, it’s going to disappear, and there is a wonderful area of habitat that will go with it.”
That habitat includes cypress trees, water canals, wetlands and one of the last sections of maritime forest on Mobile Bay, all of which Melton said made the acquisition attractive to NFWF’s board of directors and Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley, who both supported the project.
While the county will own the property, Melton said, there aren’t any plans currently for it to be open to the public. However, Carl said he’d personally like to see the land used by the public for educational purposes and as a way to access the waterfront.
“I’ve heard from people worried about a boat launch — ones that don’t want one and some that do,” Carl said. “There are no plans for anything like that, but there are canals down there that would be perfect for kayaking. We could possibly look into something like that in the future that would keep it peaceful and quiet, not anything huge or commercial.”
When it’s finalized, the 233-acre purchase will be the latest acquisition for Mobile County, which has already used grants from the Coastal Impact Assistance Program to purchase and preserve more than 1,000 acres of land in local floodplain and wetland areas.