Fairhope resident Chip Shaw has personally seen the impact of development on the portion of Fly Creek flowing behind his home on Sea Cliff Drive. Shaw said the level of sand and debris in the creek has increased dramatically due to erosion caused by the development of the Shoppes at Fairhope Village — anchored by Publix — in 2008.
According to Shaw, when he first moved into the home in 2002, the creek bordering his property measured approximately 7 feet deep. After a few years, its depth was reduced to 5 or 6 feet because of erosion after hurricanes Ivan and Katrina, but when a retention pond failed at the Publix construction site, Shaw said an additional 4 feet of sediment was dumped into the creek.
In 2009, the city of Fairhope and the shopping center’s developers were sued by residents who complained stormwater runoff from the construction site eroded the creek’s banks and filled it with sediment. The city was eventually dismissed from the suit and the remaining parties reached a confidential settlement.
Now, a developer has asked the city to consider a change to a 39-acre portion of the 214-acre Fly Creek PUD to allow the development of a 230-unit “luxury” apartment complex named The Retreat at Fairhope Village, which would be located directly behind the shopping center.
Shaw said at first he was surprised by the size of the three-story buildings with gabled roofs proposed for the project, which he said would probably not comply with the city’s height restrictions and may require a variance. His biggest concern, though, is the project’s potential impact on Fly Creek.
“After what happened with the Publix development — and let me say I love the store and think it is good for Fairhope — but in the construction phase the developer’s stewardship of Fly Creek was almost nonexistent,” Shaw said. “It was like they clear cut all this land and did none of the environmental safeguards they said they would do.
“My biggest concern is not necessarily about water quality, but that the creek could be filled up with sand and unusable for boats,” Shaw said.
Adam Milam, the plaintiffs’ attorney in the 2009 complaint, said Fly Creek began to change in the late 1960s, when U.S. Highway 98 was widened from two lanes to four and a bridge was constructed over the creek. At the time, the bridge’s development caused debris to fill in parts of the basin at the Fairhope Yacht Club at the end of the creek.
Over the years, the creek was further eroded due to repeated dredging; then hurricanes Ivan and Katrina hit and did further damage. The development of the Shoppes at Fairhope Village sent even more debris, including red clay, into the creek, Milam said.
“What happened is that the construction, and the detention pond failure, dumped sediment and sand in large levels into the creek,” Milam said. “You used to have mullet and brown pelicans at the creek, but now they are hard to find. It is to the point where if the apartments are built, Fly Creek will be nothing more than a sand creek because of additional erosion. People won’t be able to get large boats in and out of there.”
Shaw recently had the portion of the creek behind his home dredged at a personal cost of more than $8,000. Since then, Shaw said, the creek has been a steady 8 feet deep at the location. However, he said there are at least three large sand bars nearby, something he fears would become more prevalent with additional development near the creek.
He suggested the city should create a topographical map of the creek in order to have a record of what it looks like before the apartments are developed.
“They don’t know what’s there right now, so they won’t be able to show damages without knowing the topography,” Shaw said, noting he plans to personally record the topography of the creek behind his own home.
Milam pointed to a pair of ordinances passed by the city — the 2010 red soil ordinance and the 2008 wetlands disturbance ordinance — which he said should not allow the apartment development to be constructed at all.
“The city adopted these ordinances to protect its wetlands like Fly Creek, and I’m afraid it is going to be hard to develop this apartment complex in compliance with the ordinances,” Milam said.
During a public hearing about the development at the March 28 Fairhope City Council meeting, developer Stewart Speed said traffic and environmental impact studies have been performed and Leaf River Group, Speed’s company, plans to comply with all of Fairhope’s environmental regulations.
An environmental study performed by Goodwin Mills Cawood indicated the project would not directly impact the creek, while a traffic study from engineering firm Neel-Schaffer showed it would have minimal impact, Speed said.
Speed said the company also has inquired about purchasing an environmental insurance policy for up to $1 million to cover any environmental damage that may occur during development of the apartment complex.
Still, Milam said, the city should have its own independent studies performed before the development takes place.
“We are trying our best to make sure the project is restricted as much as possible,” Milam said. “We want an independent traffic study and an independent environmental impact study. We want the city to make the developer purchase a surety bond, to make sure they pay for whatever damages may occur during development.”
Fairhope Planning Director Jonathan Smith said while the apartment complex is compatible with the “village concept” in the city’s comprehensive plan, the planning department is concerned with the potential impact the project will have on Fly Creek if proper care is not taken during development.
The Fairhope City Council will likely vote on the proposed changes to the Fly Creek PUD at its next meeting April 11.
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