Mobile County is in the process of using $4.3 million of state money to buy a 146-acre property on the western shore of the bay — a land acquisition that will add to more than 1,400 acres the county has purchased for preservation and public access projects in recent years.
The purchase is being funded with Alabama’s proceeds from the Gulf of Mexico Energy Security Act (GOMESA), which splits revenue from federal oil and gas royalties collected from companies drilling in the Gulf of Mexico with the states and coastal communities impacted by those operations.
In 2018, Alabama and its coastal counties received close to $30 million from GOMESA, but the federal law only authorizes a limited number of environmentally focused uses for those dollars, such as land conservation, public access projects, hurricane preparedness and coastal protection.
Earlier this year, the state began accepting project suggestions for ways to use its GOMESA revenue, and of the 58 suggested, one of the 15 that were approved was a land purchase in the Bellefontaine area that includes multiple parcels that stretch across both sides of Kearns Road.
It seems the owners of the property proposed the project themselves.
“This was the result of a project submitted to the state by the actual landowners that will fund the acquisition of this property using state GOMESA funds,” Mobile County Environmental Services Director Eddie Kerr said. “Because of its proximity to the property south of Saltaire Road we’ve already purchased, the state asked the county to be the recipient of those funds and purchase the property.”
Kerr was referring the 233 acres immediately to the south that was once part of the planned SaltAire subdivision development before it stalled out amid the 2007 housing crisis. Using $3.6 million it received after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the county stepped in and purchased that property in 2016.
As for the new land acquisition, it’s still a bit unclear how the project was selected.
Lagniappe contacted the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources [ADCNR] and Governor Kay Ivey’s office for input on the process, but did not receive an immediate response. Ivey is expected to formally announce almost $28 million in GOMESA projects in Mobile and Baldwin counties later this week along with various local and state officials.
In the meantime, the county’s purchase agreement is being finalized with BSST, LLC and Belle Fontaine Holdco, LLC, which state records indicate was set up by an out-of-state corporation in 2011. BSST was incorporated in 2018 by attorney Todd Denison, who confirmed that BSST represents an ownership group, but said he couldn’t disclose any individual clients without their permission.
Tax records indicate that BSST owns at least 13 parcels of property in the area near Kearns Road, which appraised for a combined $1,494,400 but appear to have been valued much higher as part of sales between various entities over the past eight years.
It appears the Belle Fontaine Improvement District Inc. sold the parcels to Belle Fontaine Holdco, LLC days after it was created in 2011. It then sold them to Florida-based BOE 20, LLC, which changed its name to Saltaire Breeze, LLC before selling the properties to BSST last fall days after it was created.
Lagniappe has requested a copy of the title report prepared on behalf of the county and will update this story once it has been received. The properties are not currently developed and none appear to have structures built on them. To the south, though, there are several properties with waterfront homes stretching down to Fowl River Point.
Regardless of who is selling them, though, buying the properties seems to line up well with a series of land acquisitions the county has made over the past five years through various federal funding streams like the Gulf Environmental Benefit Fund, Coastal Impact Assistance Program [CIAP] and GOMESA.
Environmental Grants Director Tina Sanchez said the county didn’t request the state to fund this particular land buy, but did ask that the state allocate some funds to continue purchasing parcels in sensitive habitats and waterfront locations throughout the county.
Speaking with Lagniappe, Sanchez said the latest acquisition will add 146 acres to more than 1,400 the county has already purchased over the past few years as part of preservation and public access projects in places like Lightning Point, Big Creek Lake, SaltAire and others areas throughout the county.
From planned expansions at Chickasabogue Park to the purchase of the Escatawpa Hollow Campground and Memories Fish Camp, a number of projects are eventually expected to give residents easier access to public natural resources, and Sanchez said many purchases have protected sensitive habitats as well.
“The SaltAire property, for example, was really the last remaining large piece of undeveloped land along the entire western shore of Mobile Bay,” Sanchez said. “It’s home to beautiful salt marshes, wetlands and upland forests that will now all be protected in perpituity.”
The properties the county is the process of buying on the state’s behalf also extend around 1,400 out into Mobile Bay, according to Kerr, who said that could “open up some opportunities for public access” in the future. He said the county would ultimately like to tie the property into its SaltAire purchase as well.
However, Kerr did note the state’s $4.3 million grant only covers the cost of buying the land itself and doesn’t include any additional funding to renovate, upgrade or expand the public’s access to it.
“The priorities for our public access and public park programs right now are Chickasabogue Park, Escatawpa Hollow and those areas,” Kerr said. “We just know that this a special piece of property that has a lot of potential when more funding for public access projects becomes available.”
After the 3-0 vote to authorize the purchase on Oct. 30, Mobile County Commissioner Connie Hudson said the county could ask the state for help enhancing portions of the property in the future.
*Updated 11:37 a.m., Nov. 7, to correct grammatical errors.
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