In what Mayor Tim Kant touted as the first environmental project eligible for RESTORE Act funds, the Fairhope City Council unanimously authorized the execution of a $8.75 million purchase agreement for the Dyas triangle, a 108-acre property that has been the subject of civil litigation for more than 40 years.
In a handwritten resolution authored during an executive session moments before the vote was cast, the council agreed to let Kant cut a $3 million check from the city’s utilities reserves and seek the remainder of the purchase price from the federal government. The final half of the two-sentence resolution states, “The city fully expects and intends to seek reimbursement and payment from the federal government for this environmental project pursuant to the RESTORE Act, the Clean Water Act and other sources of funding related to the BP oil spill.”
Not specified is the contributing role of The Conservation Fund, represented at the meeting by Gulf Coast Field Representative Ray Herndon, who suggested the deal could benefit from its $110 million Land Conservation Loan Program. The Conservation Fund is an Arlington, Va. based nonprofit that works with “community and government leaders, businesses, landowners, conservation nonprofits and other partners,” according to its website.
“That hasn’t been worked out yet,” Kant said after the meeting, suggesting The Conservation Fund would pay the Dyas family the $5.75 million balance, and later negotiate a sale to the city in exchange for RESTORE Act money.Kant said the $3 million would be returned to the reserve fund within four years.
“What’s important is our contribution today,” he said. “[Fairhope] Utilities have plenty of cash on hand plus then we’ll have the asset on the books. It’s easier to pay back utilities than to pay back the government.”
City Council President Jack Burrell said he “could not guarantee” that the city would be reimbursed through the RESTORE Act, but a partnership with The Conservation Fund, coupled with the completion of a $30,000 Fly Creek watershed study by Thompson Engineering would likely carry some weight in the application process. Burrell, whose primary residence is on the opposite side of the creek, said the swift approval of the resolution brings an end to decades of legal action costing the city more than $1 million.
“We looked at it as a way to put that behind us and to preserve and protect the watershed for generations to come,” he said.
Prior to the vote, a small contingent of residents spoke in favor of the deal. No one opposed.
Kant is among the panel of mayors serving on the Alabama Gulf Coast Recovery Council, which will select projects eligible for RESTORE Act funding. In May, AGCRC Vice Chairman Jimmy Lyons said the panel “should not be discussing” project proposals until it adopted some basic organizational covenants. The Recovery Council last met earlier this month, but has yet to adopt its Restoration Project Information Sheet, which parties will use in the proposal process.
Kant told the City Council tonight that other cities have put economic development projects in motion in hopes of funding through the RESTORE Act, but the Dyas Triangle deal would be the first environmental preservation project to move forward. Kant said a looming court deadline precipitated the hasty resolution.
Art Dyas, who lives on the property his father initially approached the city to develop in 1972, said he was pleased with the resolution. After a tentative development agreement fell apart more than 10 years ago he said, the land has been in limbo. It was appraised last year for more than $12 million.
“We as family decided that we would not pass this battle onto our children and we saw this as a way to preserve it and protect the property for public use,” he said. “This isn’t a deal that was hatched overnight. There has been a lot of back and forth and as it is, everyone is agreeable. You’re witnessing history.”
Kant said the property would be preserved in its natural state, except for the addition over time of parking facilities, improved walking trails and possibly an arboretum. In the future, he said the city would look at options to preserve more of the 5,000-acre watershed.
“The environmental objective is to prevent Fly Creek from looking like D’Olive Creek or Dog River,” he said. “If we didn’t take action now, I don’t know how we would stop that mess. It’s a large, large piece of property — amazing piece of property. We don’t have a park on that side of town and eventually we hope it will become a tourist attraction.”