For nearly three hours on Monday night Fairhope residents, City Council members and a developer debated the merits of a proposed apartment development in the Fly Creek Planned Unit Development zone behind the Publix Shopping Center at U.S. Highway 98 and Parker Road.
While the Fly Creek PUD itself encompasses 214 acres and was approved as condos and single-family households in 2006, property owners Fred and Angelo Corte have asked the city to amend the zoning designation of 39.46 acres behind Publix to allow for the apartment development.
Even though proposed changes to the Fly Creek PUD had been debated at length at Fairhope Planning and Zoning Commission meetings in December and February, residents will have to wait until the City Council’s first meeting in April for the its decision about the 240-unit complex, named The Retreat at Fairhope Village.
Because the proposal was scheduled for a public hearing on Monday, councilors would have had to suspend the rules to consider it at the meeting. After lengthy discussions, no councilors moved for immediate consideration, so approval will likely appear on the next council agenda in April.
Leaf River Group President Stewart Speed, the developer of the project, has tried to assure councilors — as well as outspoken residents from nearby subdivisions — the project will be good for the city.
“A lot has been said about this project, and a lot of it is incorrect and factually inaccurate,” Speed said. “We are not proposing something against the city’s comprehensive plan. We are not changing the character of Fairhope. We are not being uncooperative with the city, and not building in someone’s backyard.”
Residents’ concerns ranged from the environmental impacts the project may have on Fly Creek, which many argued still shows the effects of the construction of the Publix Shopping Center, to the potential increase in traffic and overcrowding in the city’s schools. Others feared an apartment complex would lower the property values in nearby, high-end neighborhoods such as Rock Creek, Sandy Ford and the Woodlands.
“My big concern is that the apartments will bring more families not paying property taxes that homeowners pay, that pay for our schools,” Sandy Ford resident Pam Hardison said. “Our schools are stressed already. We have two neighborhoods on 181, Dunmore and Old Field, that are in Daphne but they go to our schools because Daphne is overcrowded. I am concerned about how our schools will be supported by this development.”
Apartments at the Retreat at Fairhope Village would rent for $1,000 per month for one bedroom and as high as $1,600 for three bedrooms. Speed said they would have the highest rent on the Eastern Shore and that the income requirement for a one-bedroom apartment is $40,000.
According to Speed, the development would attract Baby Boomers, Millennials, retirees, Fairhope municipal employees and a handful of families, although it would have just 20 three-bedroom units.
“When you mix all these folks together, you incubate future homebuyers, who may want to buy the houses of some of the opponents of the project in the future,” Speed said.
While most of the residents who spoke at the meeting signaled their opposition to the development, a few said the city needs additional rental space to attract people who are renters by choice. As a single woman living in a large house in Daphne, Amy Bowman said she would welcome the chance to rent a nice apartment in Fairhope, where she is employed.
“I can afford to buy a home, but I don’t want the demands of owning a home,” Bowman said. “Currently in Fairhope there is nothing that fits my needs or wants. I work in Fairhope, and I would like to become a resident. This would be a way to do that. I want to rent by choice, not necessity.”
City Council President Jack Burrell said a recent “boom” in births at Thomas Hospital and growth in the city is evidence people are moving to Fairhope without the aid of additional rental space. He estimated the mortgage payment on a $275,000 Fairhope home would be similar to the price of rent at the Retreat at Fairhope Village.
“I’ve heard a lot about demand, and I’ve heard that we need more rental property,” Burrell said. “But I don’t understand why we are told we have to satisfy the demands of future residents, but not the people who live here now. We have one of the fastest-growing cities in the state of Alabama, so we obviously aren’t having a problem getting people here.”
Councilwoman Diana Brewer said her main concern with the project is the potential environmental impact on Fly Creek. She said the city does need additional rental units to protect its image as a diverse, vibrant community and the apartment development won’t degrade the city.
“I don’t want Fairhope to become a place where only wealthy, rich people can live,” Brewer said. “I don’t think that’s what Fairhope is. I’m saying let’s protect Fairhope’s identity as a place that welcomes people of all types.”
The Planning Commission voted 5-4 at its December meeting to recommend denial to the City Council, but it received just one “no” vote when the proposal reappeared on the agenda in February. Just as at the February Planning Commission meeting, city planning attorney Chris Gill was questioned over the legality of having the proposal go before the commission so soon after its seeming rejection. Gill said in December the motion failed by a 5-4 vote but no definitive action was taken, and the city allows property owners to withdraw applications at any stage in the planning process.
Some residents said the city previously promised nearby homeowners that the PUD would include single-family homes instead and not apartments. Burrell said the city should honor whatever agreement it made with those residents at the time.
“I do think it would be a violation of the people’s trust if we approve this,” Burrell said.
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