Some people say Fort Morgan is more of a state of mind than a place. Sprawling from the Gulf Shores city limits to the historic landmark from which it draws its name, the peninsula is a sparsely populated stretch of mostly single-family dwellings — a throwback when it comes to Gulf Coast beaches.
Many of its permanent residents want to keep it that way and are seeking to put it on the map, literally. The Fort Morgan Civic Association incorporation committee has recommended that the area incorporate — become a town — and residents have engaged in serious talks with Baldwin County’s legislative delegation.
“The primary thrust would be to protect ourselves from overdevelopment in both height and density,” Fort Morgan Civic Association President Paul Barefield said. “They’ve already ruined Gulf Shores and Orange Beach. We don’t want that to happen here.”
A letter sent to civic association members said its incorporation committee met with the Baldwin County legislative delegation Dec. 11 and asked legislators to introduce a constitutional amendment to incorporate the area.
“The objective would be to get it on the November ballot,” Barefield said. “Given the hurdles, I don’t know if that’s possible.”
He’s also not sure whether to expect success on the first effort or to hope it merely gets a conversation started.
“That’s a good question,” he said. “Anytime there are money and politics involved, it complicates things.”
Incorporation can be achieved without a constitutional amendment through statutory means provided for in the Code of Alabama. But the requirements are tough for such a sparsely populated area to meet. There must be four qualified electors living in each quarter section and all of the area to be incorporated must be contiguous.
According to Thelma Strong, an elections worker and member of the Fort Morgan Civic Association, there are 630 registered voters in the area. The area is most densely populated from the Gulf Shores city limits to near the Beach Club condominium.
Alabama’s constitution gives the Legislature broad powers and it can pass an amendment to incorporate an area that did not fully meet those requirements. The amendment would then go on the ballot and, depending on how it’s framed by the Legislature, must pass either a countywide or a statewide referendum.
Rep. Steve McMillan said he will introduce the legislation. But he expects opposition and it puts him in an awkward situation.
“There’s some ill will that runs really deep there,” McMillan said. “I’m in a no-win situation. Some people in Gulf Shores will be mad with me if I introduce it. The people down at Fort Morgan will be mad if it doesn’t pass.”
Elsewhere in south Baldwin County, residents of Magnolia Springs voted 224-96 to approve incorporation in May 2006. In 2010, its population was recorded by the U.S. Census as 723. In April 2009, residents of Perdido Beach voted 203-117 to incorporate, where in 2010 the Census determined the population was 581.
Gulf Shores annexed a long stretch of Alabama Highway 180, also known as Fort Morgan Road, after Fort Morgan residents began discussing incorporation in 2001 and 2002. It split the community in two, between north and south, effectively preventing the two halves from incorporating, and placed much of the area in the Gulf Shores police and planning jurisdictions. The Fort Morgan Civic Association opposed the annexation and initiated a lawsuit that took years to resolve and cost thousands of dollars.
But it was successful in overturning the annexation. It turns out federal property along the annexation corridor made the areas to be annexed non-contiguous.
Fort Morgan’s zoning is currently regulated by the Baldwin County Planning and Zoning Commission. Any zoning changes for the area must pass through the civic association’s zoning advisory board, which makes a recommendation to the commission. The recommendation is not legally binding, though.
“We can live, right now, with the county’s restrictions on planning and zoning,” Barefield said.
That makes McMillan wonder why incorporation is really necessary.
“The people down in Fort Morgan want the same thing as the mayor of Gulf Shores,” McMillan said. “They want to control the traffic coming through Gulf Shores and to stop the high-rise condominiums down to the west.”
Gulf Shores Mayor Robert Craft did not return messages left for him.
Barefield agrees Craft is on the record saying just that. Simply put, Fort Morgan-area residents just don’t trust Gulf Shores officials.
“You can look and see what Gulf Shores is,” Fort Morgan resident Ken Steiner said. “Every time they build a condo, they brag about it.”
When he goes to Orange Beach, Steiner is reminded of what he doesn’t want Fort Morgan to become.
“We don’t want wall-to-wall condos,” Steiner said. “We’d like to keep it the way that it is, or as much as we can anyway.”
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