In the end, all it took to resolve decades of complaints was $10,450 and a resolution suddenly tacked onto the Fairhope City Council agenda an hour before the meeting began Aug. 12.
Several times over the past year, residents in the western Twin Beech Road area have voiced concerns about a problematic sewer lift station prone to overflows and pungent odors. The lift station pumps sewage from points as far south as Pelican Point and when it arrives, Fairhope Public Works Director Richard Johnson said, it’s often “rancid.” A mechanical failure there last month resulted in 75,000 – 100,000 gallons of untreated wastewater being released into Point Clear Creek.
Although the city has plans to relieve pressure on the lift station as density in the area continues to increase, the odor problem has existed for years, several residents have reported. Comments made to the City Council this year have even included racial undertones, with some residents of the historically African American neighborhood suggesting the problem wouldn’t have persisted in a more affluent, white area of town. Most of the neighborhood is not even connected to the city’s sewer system.
On July 22, Twin Beech Road resident Clarice Hall-Black told the council: “We are smelling city crap, all up and down our street … I’m 44 years old and it’s been pretty much all my life. Everyone that I know on that street is pretty much African American and they’re all on septic systems … and we need that system fixed ASAP.”
As recently as Monday, Henshaw Road resident Helen Hall — grandchildren at her side — told the City Council they “wake up and go to sleep smelling that stuff.”
“It can’t do anything but lead to health problems,” she said. “[The children] play outside all the time, and inhaling that stuff is not good for your health. I don’t want them, five, 10 years down the road, starting to suffer from health problems because we’re having to deal with this mess we’re not even a part of.”
In a conversation with Lagniappe July 31, Public Works Director Richard Johnson and Mayor Karin Wilson acknowledged the city has ignored the problem for years, but Wilson said her administration only became aware of it recently, during an informal meeting in the neighborhood with Operations Director Richard Peterson.
“We got an earful … but they said they had been complaining about that for like 30 years,” Wilson said. “And that makes me want to frickin’ cry. It’s absolutely ridiculous.”
Johnson said it “has been a historic problem that, shame on us, we’ve had two years to be effective and change and unfortunately … we kept not looking at it … We’re guilty there, we’ve ignored that problem too long.”
At the work session Monday, Peterson said it was the city’s intention to be “good neighbors. We want to do the best we can to minimize our impact on everybody.” He requested an item be added to the agenda “to purchase and install an odor-control unit to reduce odors in and around the Twin Beech lift station area to unnoticeable levels.” The council approved the $10,400 purchase the same night; anticipated delivery is three to four weeks.
“They’ve been there forever and they said ‘it smells like this all the time, including when I was growing up,’” Wilson said July 31. “I was mortified. Absolutely mortified and then they just start complaining, because they know nothing’s ever going to happen. And then we found out it was kind of an easy fix. I honestly personally did not know about [it], but it’s just embarrassing. It really is.”
In other news, the council adopted an ordinance regarding “sleeping in vehicles, out-of-doors or in nonresidential zones.” While partially crafted to create laws to address problematic homeless encampments, city officials claim it will also prevent RV campers from unauthorized long-term parking on city property and unauthorized camping on public beaches.
During a work session July 8, Police Chief Stephanie Hollinghead said the ordinance mirrors similar laws established in other cities and it will allow the police department to issue municipal offense tickets, which could become arrestable offenses. Targeting Fairhope’s small-but-visible homeless population is not the goal, Hollinghead said, but the ordinance will create a framework to resolve complaints.
On Monday, resident Emily Gardner said she had concerns about the effect the ordinance would have on people with limited means, but believes it will be applied with compassion.
“I understand tools are needed and there might be situations that render the police sort of helpless to deal with these situations, but I’m concerned about after this, what happens?” she asked. “What happens to the family that is spending the night in their car in the Walmart parking lot and they are asked to move on?”
Gardner encouraged the city, churches and nonprofits to “continue to have meaningful dialogue” to assist anyone who may be looking for long-term housing.
Interviewed on WABF 1480AM Tuesday morning, Wilson said the ordinance is “more about safety than anything … only there to protect citizens if there was a need.”
Separately, the Fairhope Planning Commission has called a special meeting Sept. 10 to allow for additional public engagement on the proposed Greeno Road Corridor Overlay District. There, a new form-based code is being considered to apply to a nearly 7-mile stretch of the city’s most heavily trafficked corridor. Restrictions affecting setbacks, landscaping, facades, uses and habitation may be imposed on properties within 400 feet of the centerline of Greeno Road.
No action will be taken by the Planning Commission Sept. 10, although it may recommend adopting the overlay as early as October. The City Council would then have to affirm.
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