Despite a small delay, Mobile County is still poised to purchase a small fish camp on Fowl River and convert it to a public boat launch, though some are already concerned about the increase in traffic it could bring to the popular waterway.
This week, the Mobile County Commission rescheduled a vote to authorized the purchase of a 1.7-acre property on Fowl River where Memories Fish Camp sits today. The camp is currently suitable for small, non-motorized boats and costs around $3 to use.
If the $95,000 purchase is approved, the county’s loose plan moving forward would be to demolish the existing structures and build a facility suitable for launching kayaks, canoes and possibly even smaller motorized boats. Funding for the purchase and improvements would come from offshore oil revenues through the Gulf of Mexico Energy Security Act (GOMESA).
Commissioner Jerry Carl said the addition of a public boat launch would increase the public’s access to the waterfront and Mobile Bay — something he said the area is desperately lacking.
“We’ve had some real issues finding access to public waterways and this will be a very small move in that direction,” Carl said. “We’ve had money set aside at different times over the last seven years for public access projects, but we’ve just not been able to find any suitable property.”
In recent years, some projects have moved forward thanks to funding from the GOMESA program. According to a three-year expenditure plan for those funds released in 2018, the county intends to spend $1.8 million acquiring similar “public access” properties by 2021.
The county already paid $715,000 for the 45-acre Escatawpa Hollow Campground near the Alabama-Mississippi state line in January and plans to improve it with additional campsites, walking trails and greater access to the river.
Another $3.1 million has also been set aside to develop and implement a “public access master plan” for those properties and other existing parks.
As for Memories Fish Camp, Carl said the county plans — at the very least — to add restroom facilities and make improvements to the existing boat launch. Among other things, he said additional public launches could help take pressure off existing launches in places such as Dauphin Island.
“If we’re able to get even 20 or 30 boats off Dauphin Island, that’s a good thing,” Carl added.
It’s currently unclear exactly what type or size of boats would be able to use the planned location. Tina Sanchez, who works with the county’s environmental department, said the exact amenities and improvements wouldn’t be known until the master plan was completed.
However, a few residents have already expressed opposition to the county building any boat ramp that would serve motorized vessels because of the impact it could have on the fishermen, boaters, skiers, kayakers and property owners who already use the river.
Elizabeth Chiepalich told commissioners she’s owned property on the river all her life and went on to compare the congestion on some summer weekends to “Airport Boulevard at 5 p.m.” With such a narrow waterway, she said increased congestion could create a “dangerous situation.”
According to Sanchez, those kinds of concerns would be addressed in the planning process. She added that, when the time comes, the county can take measures to restrict what boats use the launch by building it to specifications not conducive for larger watercraft.
“We’ve been soliciting proposals from firms to perform that process, which would include a needs assessment, community outreach and the design including what improvements might need to be made,” Sanchez said. “We plan to engage the citizens through a survey and some outreach meetings to determine what they’d like to see in their communities.”
The deal for the property was scheduled to close this week, but Carl asked that the motion be held over in order for him to solicit some preliminary feedback from residents.
However, because it’s been difficult for the county to find suitable waterfront access, Commissioner Merceria Ludgood said a delay seemed unnecessary. She said a lack of public access has already caused some problems with another multi-million project — the Blueway Trail Development.
Funded through $8 million of RESTORE Act penalties from BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the Blueway project aims to “increase and enhance public access to local waters” and “promote nature-based tourism.”
As with parts of the GOMESA plan, the Blueway is also dependent on the county finding and buying coastal property. While she didn’t downplay the concerns from residents like Chiepalich, Ludgood seemed to prefer addressing them after the county has secured the parcel on Fowl River.
“I just don’t see how anything is going to be different in two weeks. We still won’t have a master plan, and the process we’re envisioning provides for public input,” Ludgood said. “We really can’t plan what we’re going to do with this property if it’s not ours.”
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