A crowd of from 150 to 200 people packed the Fort Morgan Volunteer Fire Department’s Fire Station No. 2 on March 5 to discuss the merits of incorporating the Fort Morgan area into Baldwin County’s newest municipality.
“We want to protect what we have down here,” said Fort Morgan Civic Association President Paul Barefield, who moderated the meeting. “The best way to control density and height is to incorporate.”
Both permanent residents and property owners who live elsewhere attended the meeting. The overwhelming sentiment of those attending favored incorporation. The civic association has asked Rep. Steve McMillan (R-Foley) to introduce a bill that would call for a referendum on a constitutional amendment incorporating the area. McMillan said Monday he is still working on the details and the bill has not yet been introduced.
Members of the Fort Morgan Civic Association sought the bill after winning a lawsuit with Gulf Shores, which annexed a large area about a decade ago, placing much of the Fort Morgan area in the city’s police and planning jurisdictions. Residents fear Gulf Shores officials would encourage development of high-rise condominiums in the area, which is mostly populated by single-family dwellings.
The association spent more than $100,000 fighting the annexation, which the courts eventually overturned. The fight created bitter feelings on both sides and many Fort Morgan residents feel the only way to prevent it from happening again is to incorporate.
The area’s zoning is currently controlled by the Baldwin County Planning and Zoning Commission and, ultimately, the Baldwin County Commission. Barefield said most people are happy with the current zoning, which limits structures to eight stories. A zoning advisory committee was appointed for the area but it has no actual regulatory power.
The County Commission can approve zoning changes regardless of recommendations made by the advisory committee or the Planning and Zoning Commission. The civic association asked the commission to establish an independent zoning board for the area but it declined, Barefield said.
There were two options for the constitutional amendment, one that would be strictly a local vote and one that must pass a statewide vote. An amendment requiring only a local vote must pass both houses of the Legislature without a single vote in opposition.
Consequently, an amendment requiring a statewide vote is the more likely option, Barefield said. He admitted the process might be more political.
“There’s a limited amount of waterfront and most of it is up and down this road,” Barefield said. “Where there’s waterfront, it has to be political.”
Other options were to form the area into a historic district or a preservation district. The historic district didn’t offer enough protection and the preservation district was too restrictive, Barefield said.
Some residents and property owners were concerned about additional taxation. Barefield said additional sales or property taxes probably wouldn’t be needed. The town could operate on revenues from an existing lodging tax that would be shifted to the municipality. Barefield estimated it would bring in about $1.5 million a year.
The main costs would be police and fire protection. Incorporation would not affect the Fort Morgan Volunteer Fire Department. The town could contract with the Baldwin County Sheriff’s Office for police protection. It could contract with Baldwin County for road maintenance.
“We’ll have the option of adding more tax but we don’t need to do that,” he said.
Absentee property owners were concerned about bearing the burden of taxation.
“The people who own houses and rent them, they’re going to pay for it,” said Glenn Gremillion, a Louisiana resident who owns a house in Fort Morgan. “And they won’t get a vote.”
Only those who claim the area as their primary residence will be allowed to vote on incorporation should the referendum pass.
But resident Martha Howard noted that the money would be collected from renters, not property owners.
Others were concerned with losing the freedom they now have in the unincorporated area.
“The thing I like about Fort Morgan is being able to take my dog to the beach,” resident Jay Andrews said. “If I can’t take my dog to the beach, I’m not for incorporation.”
Others questioned if local officials would be any more trustworthy.
“The question is, if we elect a mayor and city council, how do we know they’re not a bunch of crooks?” Barefield said with a shrug. “That could happen.”
Overall, most attending the meeting seemed to favor incorporation.
“If they don’t quit ‘if-ing’ they’ll never get it done,” said property owner Spencer Mason of Tallassee.
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