Seldom does a long-standing conflict between environmentalists and a beach developer end with both sides winning. But in the case of Gulf Highlands, everybody’s happy.
The 113-acre tract on the Fort Morgan peninsula is the last large, privately held piece of undeveloped beach and dunes on the Alabama coast. With an award last week of $36 million in BP oil spill money from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, the property will be purchased by the state for conservation.
At one time, the land was destined to be home to 500 condominiums. Now, it will be a refuge for the endangered Alabama beach mouse, sea turtles, the piping plover and other birds and wildlife. It is by far the biggest project to be funded so far from the Gulf Environmental Benefit Fund managed by NFWF from criminal fines against BP and Transocean.
“This is, in my opinion, the supreme prize of everything we’ve been working on for 21 years, because it’s a huge parcel, it was under imminent threat of concrete condominium development and is a prime habitat of the endangered beach mouse and other species,” said Hank Caddell, a Mobile attorney and founder of the Alabama Coastal Heritage Trust. “It is a remnant of the kind of beach we had throughout the Alabama coast.”
Since his family acquired the property in 1996, the rest of the coastline has been developed, Nick Wilmott of Gulf Shores said. “We’re happy to see what’s happened to the area, but if we can preserve something like that and work with the state, it’s wonderful.”
Gulf Highlands, located just west of the Beach Club in Fort Morgan, contains 2,700 feet of beachfront and dunes. Because it has never been developed, the dunes are high. Caddell said the tract is better able to handle storm surges and protect birds and wildlife. In addition, migratory birds use it as a resting place after their journey north across the Gulf of Mexico.
The beach is also ideal for sea turtle nests because there are no lights, Caddell said. Endangered sea turtles lay eggs on the beach, and when the eggs hatch, baby turtles follow moonlight and starlight to the water. Lights from houses, condos, even flashlights can draw the newly hatched turtles in the wrong direction, and they’ll die.
Caddell spent seven years during the 1970s as head of the environmental protection division for then-Attorney General Bill Baxley. The coastal heritage trust was founded in 1995 as part of a settlement of the first litigation involving the beach mouse on the Alabama coast, in which Caddell represented the plaintiff. The trust works to protect the beach mouse and preserve coastal habitat in Fort Morgan and on Dauphin Island.
According to Caddell, two major pieces of litigation tied up the Gulf Highlands property for years. In one case, he represented citizens who challenged the zoning of the property; in the other, the Sierra Club led environmental groups in challenging a permit they said would have harmed the beach mouse.
Wilmott said the initial development plan was for seven or eight buildings that would have been spread across the beach. Another plan would have reduced the footprint in favor of 20-story towers. But between litigation and appeals, development was stymied for some 20 years, he said.
Eventually, Wilmott said, the family ended up with the permits and zoning needed to go ahead with the project. Then came the BP oil spill.
“Like everyone else down here, we didn’t build,” Wilmott said. “We held off, our permits still intact.”
When it became apparent that BP and others would be asked to make restitution, conservation groups approached the family about the possibility of using BP money to buy the property.
“They approached us, and we decided to sit down and see if there was a way to work together,” Wilmott said. “Honestly, I didn’t expect anything to ever occur. We were looking at developing, moving forward. But things happen for a reason.”
The $36 million price was established through an appraisal. Caddell admits the price is steep, and both he and Wilmott believe a development would have brought the family even more money. But Wilmott said the family had become less interested in developing and more aware that the tract had become unique.
“There wasn’t anything else like it. There wasn’t any other beach left. You start thinking not just what’s important for our family, but what’s important to the area,” he said.
According to an NFWF synopsis of the project, Gulf Highlands will end up under the management of the State Parks Division. Public access will be limited, but dune walkovers, fencing and interpretive signage are in the plans. The proximity of the parcel to the Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge is also expected to enhance the habitat value of both properties.
“We were particularly hopeful something like this could be preserved because many environmentalists were not happy with the Gulf State Park hotel project,” Caddell said. “It balances things out. It’s a fantastic thing.”