Last week a man walked into Baldwin County Commission Chairman Chris Elliott’s office and dumped debris from a piece of county property he had chainsawed down earlier that day.
It was a rather dramatic escalation in a long battle over waterfront access in Point Clear, but Michael Hutchison said he’s tired of history repeating itself on Zundel Road — an area Baldwin County’s government has repeatedly tried to limit public access to over the years.
“They built the little pier down there with steps going down to the water,” Hutchison said. “I’m sure they’re getting constant complaints about people going down there and fishing and stuff.”
Alabamians using Zundel Road to access Mobile Bay likely predates Baldwin County itself, but the legal history of the area goes back to a 1971 lawsuit that went all the way to the Alabama Supreme Court after a private landowner sought to have the county vacate its claim to the land.
When the county agreed, the landowner put up a wall restricting public access to the waterway — one Hutchison’s father-in-law, John Metzger, promptly knocked down. He was arrested for doing so, but the high court ultimately ruled that the public’s right trumped private preference.
“[This isn’t] a vacation of a street initiated by public authority to better serve the public interest, where the rule of public necessity must override private convenience, but on the contrary, we deal with a statutory provision whereby private interests may, under prescribed circumstances, deprive others of the use of a portion of an existing street in order to further the personal desires of such private interests,” the court wrote. “Such a statute should be strictly construed so that it not be an agency for oppression or misuse.”
Despite the ruling, Hutchison said there have been several attempts by Baldwin County over the last 15 years to construct a barricade to limit public access to the water— or at the very least vehicular access — using Zundel Road.
He also provided Lagniappe several certified letters sent to commissioners in 2005 and again in 2009 to verify those claims. Each letter informed the commission that any such barricade would be “in direct violation” of the state court’s order, and so far each plan to build a barricade has been abandoned.
That is why when county employees put another barricade up on Zundel Road on April 24, Hutchison continued his family’s tradition of tearing it right down.
“Knowing what we’ve been through in the past, I just said, ‘that’s it.’ I chainsawed the whole damn thing down and I went up there and dumped it in [Elliot’s] office,” he said. “I sent them a letter saying the same thing — ‘You’re in violation of the Alabama Supreme Court’s 1972 decision, and the remains of your illegal barricade are on the floor in Chris Elliott’s office.’”
Only Commissioners Charles Gruber and Frank Burt were in office the last two times similar barricades were considered, but Elliott’s district includes Point Clear and Fairhope.
Elliot did not respond to emails seeking comment on Hutchison’s claims — he’s campaigning for the State Senate seat being resigned by Trip Pittman — but Commissioner Tucker Dorsey confirmed debris from the county barricade, mostly lumber and chains, was dumped in Elliott’s office last week. He also said he was somewhat taken aback by Hutchison’s response.
“It’s not OK to do that. That’d be like you not liking a stop sign, so you cut it down and bring it over to the police station,” Dorsey said. “I’m really surprised at the way they’ve handled this with a knee-jerk, flying-off-the handle reaction. This wasn’t up 12 hours before they cut it down.”
Nevertheless, Dorsey said there aren’t currently any plans to pursue criminal charges against Hutchison. He also said the barricade was relatively inexpensive to construct.
According to Dorsey, county attorneys are in the process of reviewing the legal history of Zundel Road, which he wasn’t personally familiar with before. However, Dorsey did say the county’s goal was not to limit access to the waterfront but to make sure it can be accessed safely.
County engineerJoey Nunnally made the call to put a barricade that allowed for access by foot or on something the size of a golf cart, but restricted vehicular access. There is a public parking lot adjacent to the road off Scenic Highway 98 and Dorsey said “there’s still plenty of room” to walk or take a kayak or canoe to water.
He claims the road “is too narrow” for cars to turn around safely.
“We’re happy for people to use it. We just built a new pier and have a parking lot over there at the old Brodbeck store,” Dorsey said. “They’re trying to say this is an attempt to keep people out for rich people on the water, but we’re trying to make sure people don’t drive into the bay.”
Hutchison claims the 46-year-old court decision ensures the right to vehicular access. While the actual order issued on April 20, 1972, doesn’t explicitly mention vehicles, the decision is based on property owners being able to access to the water as well as U.S. Route 98.
While it’s unclear how the county may proceed, Hutchison said the County Commission has repeatedly made attempts to violate or circumvent state law and he and his wife, Robin, are fed up with it.
Earlier this week, he told Lagniappe Baldwin County District Attorney Robert Wilters’ Office had gotten involved at his request, though he didn’t elaborate.
“We went to them with a letter because of the continued disregard of the law,” he said. “It’s the second time we’ve had to intervene and stop Baldwin County from breaking the law.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the Baldwin County Engineer’s name is Joey Dunley. It is, in fact, Joey Nunnally. (10 a.m. May 3, 2018)