Heeding the concerns of hundreds of residents who flooded the civic center at tonight’s meeting, the Fairhope Planning Commission voted 5-4 to deny an amendment to the Fly Creek Planned Unit Development, a request that sought to approve a modification to 39 acres of high-density property targeted for residential development behind the Publix on U.S. Highway 98 at Parker Road.
The applicant, engineering firm Preble-Rish, was seeking to change a plan originally approved in 2006 allowing 333 multi-family units on the property — including condos, townhouses and “live/work” spaces. Although the proposed amendment generally meets the city’s comprehensive plan, more than a dozen residents grilled the commission and admonished the property owner over ambiguities in the development’s many variances and questions they feel remain unanswered.
Tonight, the applicant sought to change the nature of the high density residential portion of the development to 240 apartments and 90 townhouses, with a total of 675 parking spaces. A similar proposal was unexpectedly pulled from the planning commission agenda in January.
Commission President Lee Turner, who voted in support of the amendment, said the PUD represented the city’s first “village center” concept of development, where a commercial center — in this instance the strip mall anchored by Publix — is surrounded by high density residential housing, which itself is surrounded by low density, single-family housing. Further, Turner explained, “village centers” are designed to provide connectivity with existing neighborhoods and according to the comprehensive plan, “create walkable commercial areas to support adjacent neighborhoods.”
But that very connectivity was roundly opposed by residents in the nearby neighborhoods of Rock Creek, Sandy Ford and The Woodlands, who cited concerns about traffic and property values, along with anxieties over environmental impacts and school capacities. Some, who had conversations with the property owner when the development was initially proposed nearly 10 years ago, said they were assured at the time there would never be apartments on the property.
Leonard Nelson, a resident of Sandy Ford, told the commission he’s been in several meetings with the homeowners associations both there and in Rock Creek and “I feel pretty comfortable to say there is no one that supports this.”
“I can’t see the value of what [the developers] are trying to do for our community,” he continued, imploring the commission to “remember their track record so far — with the trees and retention ponds — it’s like the gang that can’t shoot straight.”
The commercial phase of the PUD spawned a lawsuit against the city and developers in 2009, after residents along Fly Creek 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.
One plaintiff in that case, High Ridge Road resident Paul Ripp, warned the commission that history was about to repeat itself.
“I’ve probably been before you 15 to 20 times on this subject since 2006, when we were told as a sales point there would be no apartments,” he said.
Further, he said the city reneged on promises to improve Parker Road and has given no indication the development isn’t part of a broader plan to connect existing neighborhoods to an area that already experiences a chaotic traffic load.
“If you think this development is not going to tie into Rock Creek (subdivision), I have lotto tickets to sell you,” he continued. “This will be the end of Fly Creek. Where are you going to put the [storm]water? There’s been no environmental impact study … there should not be any more development unless there is an understanding of what is going on with the watershed.”
Ripp also suggested the developer should be bonded against future damage to the creek, while he also requested that Fairhope Mayor Tim Kant recuse himself from the vote, as Kant has received campaign contributions from the property owner, Arthur Corte.
In separate, unrelated proposals that seem to “fly” in the face of the watershed’s continued development, the city of Fairhope submitted $63.7 million worth of requests to the Alabama Gulf Coast Recovery Council last year to restore and protect Fly Creek, and make it the centerpiece of an “integrated ecological system” forming a corridor between Mobile Bay and the Auburn University Gulf Coast Research and Extension Center on State Highway 104.
According to commissioner Bob Clark, the amendment received a favorable report from planning department staff pending certain contingencies. Among the staff recommendations were: the city should conduct a multiple occupancy project review on a formal site plan; the developer should submit a tree preservation grading plan; and “proper measures” should be taken to protect Fly Creek from runoff and environmentally sensitive aspects.
In spite of its nature, Fairhope Planning Director Jonathan Smith explained that the amendment did provide a slightly lower overall density than was previously approved, as well a 10 percent reduction in impervious surfaces and a slightly larger buffer from Fly Creek. Yet he admitted the site’s topography was “challenging,” and confirmed the developer did not need to provide traffic studies or drainage plans for the amendment’s approval.
Smith did however offer to require a traffic study upon approval, and also said the developer would have to provide operations and maintenance plans for stormwater facilities upon construction subject to three years of compliance inspections.
In support of the amendment, Preble-Rish representative Steven Pumphrey suggested — to laughter from the audience — that the apartments would be “high-end” and include “nice amenities,” such as a clubhouse and walking trails, all tied together through a pedestrian network.
“We realize Fly Creek is a very sensitive area,” he said, while also promising to “abide by all the rules … with traffic.”
Pumphrey introduced Preble-Rish President Cliff Wilson, a former deputy secretary at the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, who would serve as technical advisor on the project, along with Preble-Rish Environmental Manager Cameron Morris.
But Tom “Corky” Ollinger, vice president of the Sandy Ford Property Owners Association, joined others in expressing concerns about the developer’s “dependability.” Along with eventual connectivity to his neighborhood and others, he said there was nothing to assure the apartments would not accept Section 8 vouchers.
“It seems as though these developers can’t make up their mind,” he said. “The city of Fairhope is wonderful and we want to be y’all’s friend too, but this is an abomination.”
At the conclusion of the 90-minute hearing, commissioners Turner, George Roberds, Jay Robinson and Bob Clark voted in favor of the amendment, while Bernie Fogarty, Hollie MacKellar, Mike Ford, Jennifer Fidler and Mayor Tim Kant voted against it.
While Ford, who has been on the city council for more than 30 years, called Corte a “dear friend” whose developments have been “first class,” he said he felt the density of the proposed apartments would put a strain on the city’s resources.
“We’re going too fast, outrunning our resources and we’re trying to be a big city almost,” he said. “We did not make the city what is today to bring people in here — we made it for the people who are here and the quality of life for the people who are here.”
Still, the planning commission’s recommendation will be forwarded to the Fairhope City Council, which can adopt or deny the amendment regardless.
This page is available to subscribers. Click here to sign in or get access.
It looks like you are opening this page from the Facebook App. This article needs to be opened in the browser.
iOS: Tap the three dots in the top right, then tap on "Open in Safari".
Android: Tap the Settings icon (it looks like three horizontal lines), then tap App Settings, then toggle the "Open links externally" setting to On (it should turn from gray to blue).