The Mobile County Commission has approved a spending plan for expected oil royalties including a $1.2 million allocation for a permeable pavement parking lot at its soccer complex.
As Lagniappe has reported, Mobile and Baldwin counties are expected to see increased revenues from the Gulf of Mexico Energy Security Act (GOMESA), which established a revenue-sharing program generating millions for coastal communities every year.
Those dollars come from royalties energy companies pay the federal government in order to mine for oil and natural gas in the Gulf of Mexico.
Alabama collected $21 million through GOMESA in 2018 alone, while Baldwin County saw $2.4 million and Mobile County received $2.8 million. The original legislation dictates the lion’s share of local funding — around 80 percent — goes directly to the state government.
Though it wasn’t required, Mobile County’s environmental services department opted to put some of its ideas for using the money down on paper. The nonbinding plan, which was approved by commissioners Sept. 24, will serve as a guide for expenditures through 2020.
Eddie Kerr, who works with Mobile County’s Environmental Department, said the county has used long-term plans for similar funding sources. He also told Lagniappe in September annual GOMESA revenues are expected to stay at around $3 million through 2020.
However, Kerr said the number could be closer to $4 million if a bill currently being considered by the House were to become law and $6 million if the overall oil royalties revenues were to actually hit the $500 million cap set back in 2006.
For the most part, the county has and will have full discretion over its GOMESA expenditures, though there are limited authorized uses focusing on such environmental efforts as land conservation, hurricane preparedness projects and coastal protection.
According to the county’s GOMESA plan, the “permeable paving” parking lot project will receive $300,000 this year and $900,000 in 2019. Kerr said the $1.2 million effort would be appropriate for GOMESA funding because it will protect a coastal area which “includes wetlands.”
“The permeable pavement system is a low-impact design method meant to address the increase in stormwater runoff and decrease in water quality typically associated with construction involving impervious surfaces,” he wrote in an email earlier this month. “[The permeable pavement] allows rainfall to infiltrate into a constructed sand layer underneath.”
There are more than 80 acres of wetlands near the site of the proposed complex at the corridor of interstates 10 and 65 and, according to the county, the specialized pavement choice could minimize the impact the $3.7 million project might have on those sensitive areas.
The current property owners originally intended to donate those wetland areas to the county as part of an original land buy that ultimately fell through. It’s unclear at this point whether the county might still move to purchase and preserve those areas in a future phase of the project.
While the county is keeping those sensitive areas in mind as it prepares to move forward with construction, Commission President Connie Hudson said there was no requirement to include a permeable parking lot because of those nearby wetlands.
“It’s a very innovative way of keeping the project green. The whole idea is to keep it environmentally friendly. I think this is a great idea, and really, it’s what we had talked about doing all along,” Hudson said. “It’s a little more expensive, but in the long run it does not create the impermeable surface that a regular parking lot would.”
However, some environmental groups have been a bit dismayed by the decision to use an environmental funding source to finance any part of a project that will impact sensitive coastal habitats.
Mobile Baykeeper has taken issue with the location of the soccer complex since it was announced in 2014, and while Executive Director Casi Callaway agrees recreational fields are needed, she’d prefer to see them developed elsewhere.
She said GOMESA dollars were intended to “offset, replace or restore” any impact the offshore oil operations might have on coastal communities.
“While it may seem to make sense to use those funds to build a state of the art, permeable parking lot for a project that will fill wetlands in the vitally important headwaters of Dog River, it would be smarter to acquire the land and set it aside with no impacts at all,” she said. “We should use GOMESA funds to build resilience in our community to the next natural or man-made disaster rather than to offset impacts we are creating in the same breath.”
The construction of the soccer complex, which will initially have two tournament fields and two practice fields, will be completed in three phases. Hudson said the first phase, which included a $1.3 million property purchase, will cost roughly $3.7 million.
Hudson has mostly used her own discretionary funding for capital improvement projects to cover the costs of the project — one she’s championed for years — but said using GOMESA funding for the parking lot will reduce the overall cost of Phase 1 by $1.2 million.
Construction of the complex is scheduled to start before the end of 2018, though an exact timeline and total cost estimate for all three phases of the project have not been disclosed.
While it’s the third-largest expenditure, the soccer complex parking lot is only one of the nine projects outlined in the county’s 2018-20 GOMESA expenditure plan. Others would help fund the Mobile County Recycling Center in West Mobile, land acquisitions to increase public access and the management and upkeep of the county’s large swath of conservation lands along the coast.
The most expensive project would help develop a $3.1 million master plan to “increase public access to coastal and riverine areas and provide improved opportunities for recreation” at county-owned properties such as Chickasabogue Park and the Mobile-Tensaw River Delta.
The plan also sets aside another $1.8 million to acquire waterfront property suitable for “providing the public with new or improved opportunities for recreation along local waters.”
The full 2018-20 GOMESA expenditure plan can be reviewed below.
GOMESA Expenditure Report 2018-2020