By Brennan Walters
“Florida can never really come to grips with saving the environment because a very large percentage of the population at any given time just got there. So why should they fight to turn the clock back? It looks great to them the way it is … And meanwhile the people who knew what it was like 20 years ago are an ever-dwindling minority, a voice too faint to be heard.”
– Travis McGee, John D. MacDonald’s “The Empty Copper Sea”
For those not familiar with MacDonald’s series, the protagonist Travis McGee is a sage-like Florida beach bum. When he’s not defending a damsel in distress from the bad guy (usually a greedy real estate developer), he’s often proselytizing on the well-being of his native Florida. The series, set from the 1960s through the 1980s, highlights the shortsightedness and greed that plagued the state during that period.
Huge tracts of property are subdivided into quarter acre lots with cul-de-sacs. Concrete slabs are laid. One hundred homes identical in size and layout are built every month. Each subdivision is given its own brand apart from the city, usually named for whatever was leveled to build it. Palmetto Acres. Pine Haven. Shady Oaks. The swamps are filled and paved. Shopping centers rise from the cypress forests, which is all for the best as moccasins and alligators live in those forests. Snowbirds don’t like moccasins and they damn sure don’t like alligators, except for at a safe, supervised distance. Besides, alligators don’t pay property taxes. When the roads get crowded, add a lane. When that lane gets crowded, add a bypass. Everything is zoned nice and neatly so that the unsightly retail doesn’t dare abut anyone’s half-acre slice of the American Dream. All the while, the marketing strategy used to recruit folks to McGee’s Florida has been rendered a lie by its own success.
Like in McGee’s Florida, Baldwin County is trading its palmettos for Palmetto Acres. Once dominated by dense vernacular architecture designed for its Gulf Coast environs, newly arriving home buyers can choose between two- or three-floor plans likely drawn up by some extremely bored architect in Atlanta, Phoenix, Fort Worth or wherever. Webs of blacktop cul-de-sacs carved from the former soybean fields and pine trees are indiscernible from anywhere else in the country. Every day Baldwin County becomes a little less Gulf Coast and little more Sun Belt. And why not? The profit margins are higher in the Sun Belt. No need to worry though, we saved a couple of those Gulf Coast cottages for wedding ceremonies and the Chamber of Commerce Instagram account.
Meanwhile, competing utility companies initially founded to serve communities the size of Mayberry struggle to keep pace with strains on decades-old infrastructure, and infrastructure shortcomings continue to result in sewage overflows. So here we have a county pouring its own feces into the environment it uses as a backdrop for 90 percent of its marketing. Combine that with 1970s-era parking minimums and regulatory shortcomings that plague virtually every land-use ordinance across the county. But people and politicians in Baldwin County are ever-suspicious of over-regulation, despite how many folks stake their own identity in their love of the Gulf Coast outdoors. The irony of the endless train of trucks with their “Salt Life” stickers and “Forever Wild” plates that pull in and out of the football field-sized impervious surfaces of the Bass Pro Shops parking lot. Like in McGee’s Florida, the marketing strategies employed across the county to recruit newcomers are being rendered lies by their own success.
The knee-jerk reaction is to blame these issues on population growth, which of course plays a major role. However, less attention seems paid to the real culprit: density. While population growth at this point seems inevitable, the density of the accompanying development is not. Existing zoning across the county incentivizes large, low-density development. These developments place unnecessary strain on utility systems, city services and the environment. Ditching ‘70s-era zoning laws in favor of ordinances that promote mixed-use, high-density and low-impact development will go a long way to ease these strains, but it will take more than policy changes to make it happen. It will also take individuals resisting the natural urge to cry “NIMBY!” at every potential multi-family housing development. It will take caring and creative developers. It will take city councils and planning commissions willing to make hard, politically unpopular decisions. Will it happen? Only time will tell.
In the meantime, I’ll keep looking for Travis McGee hiding out somewhere in Baldwin County.
Brennan Walters is a former planner in Baldwin County.
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