For nearly three hours on Monday and for the second time in nearly two months, Fairhope residents railed against a proposed apartment development behind the Publix on U.S. Highway 98 at Parker Road. But unlike a similar meeting in early December, this time the Fairhope Planning Commission voted to recommend its approval to the Fairhope City Council.
Residents from the adjacent neighborhoods of Sandy Ford, Rock Creek, The Woodlands and elsewhere pleaded with the Commission to deny the 230-unit, 39-acre “luxury” apartment complex named The Retreat at Fairhope Village. The developer, Leaf River Group, estimates the complex will contribute $225,000 in real estate taxes per year and $1 million in impact fees, water and sewer tap fees, and building permits.
According to Leaf River President Stewart Speed, the complex will have one-, two- and three-bedroom apartments starting at $1,000 per month for a one bedroom. If approved, the complex will be located approximately one-fourth of a mile south of Rock Creek and approximately 1,000 feet from the northern edge of The Woodlands.
The last apartment complex built in Fairhope was Arbor Gates, developed more than 20 years ago at the corner of U.S. Highway 98 and Gayfer Avenue.
“What we are proposing doesn’t exist on the Eastern Shore right now,” Speed said. “Not in Daphne, not in Spanish Fort, not in Fairhope.”
Area real estate agent Mary Cane said Fairhope needs apartment space for people who may not be able to afford to purchase a home in a town where the median home sales price in 2015 was $243,000 and the average price was $302,000.
“In real estate, we hear all the time that people cannot afford to move to this town,” she said. “But a vibrant and inclusive town has space available to rent and for sale. I think we do need apartment space.”
During his presentation to the Commission, Speed said the complex will be “upscale” and serve the city’s baby boomers, retirees, millennials, local workforce and some families. However, the complex will have just 20 three-bedroom units at a higher price, so he doesn’t expect a surge of new families moving to the area because of the complex.
“Millennials are getting married later, having children later, have more student loan debt, are more mobile and don’t want to be tied down,” Speed said. “Many up-and-comers in Fairhope would probably like to see this development built. They would be renters by choice, not by necessity.”
Sandy Ford resident Leonard Nelson questioned whether apartments have any place in Fairhope, a place he and several other speakers said is “unique.”
“Fairhope’s unique character has nothing to do with apartments, it has to do with single-family homes,” Nelson said. “A good development enhances a community, but bad development detracts from it. I don’t think putting apartments behind Publix is right for Fairhope.”
High Ridge Road resident Paul Ripp predicted nearby property values will fall and traffic will increase to a dangerous level if the apartment complex is built at the proposed location. The Retreat will be located just a few miles south of the Colonnade at Eastern Shore apartment complex currently under construction in Daphne.
“There is already a new apartment complex going in on 98 in Daphne, and you want to put another apartment complex right here,” Ripp said. “You are going to have apartment complexes on both sides of Rock Creek, and you think there won’t be a traffic problem. You are fooling yourself if you don’t see that.”
Speed compared the proposed complex to similar ones in coastal cities like Savannah, Georgia, and Charleston, South Carolina, but commissioner Hollie MacKellar said Fairhope shouldn’t compare itself to those places. MacKellar was the commission’s lone vote against approval.
“We are Fairhope. Not Charleston, Savannah or Asheville,” MacKellar said. “My job here is for the citizens of Fairhope, and I’m listening to them.”
Commissioner Jennifer Filder said the city needs more rooftops to support the businesses at the Publix shopping center. She also said the city’s comprehensive plan is based around the “village concept” and this apartment complex is compatible with that plan.
“In my personal opinion, we do need these apartments at this location,” she said. “We need the support for the businesses there at the Publix shopping center. As it is now, those businesses don’t have enough rooftops and they need it because they aren’t very visible. They need rooftops to support them.”
Some of the residents questioned why the apartment complex was being heard again after it was rejected 5-4 at the Commission’s meeting Dec. 7. City planning department attorney Chris Gill said at the previous meeting the motion failed by a 5-4 vote but no definitive action was taken.
“The city of Fairhope has consistently acted in a way that the applicant always has the chance to withdraw the application before it is acted upon by the City Council,” Gill said.
Some in the audience questioned why Councilman Mike Ford — who voted against approval Dec. 7 — was replaced by Councilman Kevin Boone, who voted for approval at Monday’s meeting. Commission Chairman Lee Turner said all city councilors serve terms on the Planning Commission and Ford’s term on the commission had recently ended.