By John Mullen and Gabriel Tynes
With hundreds of acres being added in the past few years, the conservation effort along Alabama’s Gulf Coast is enjoying great growth.
“There’s some great conservation going on in Mobile and Baldwin counties right now,” Walter Ernest, director of operations at the Pelican Coast Conservancy, said. “This is a good time for us down here. People are recognizing the value of conservation.”
Pelican Coast Conservancy is just one of several land trusts working on conservation projects in the area.
“You have groups like the Mobile Bay National Estuary Program working on restoration projects,” Ernest said. “You’ve got the Dauphin Island Bird Sanctuary conserving bird habitat on Dauphin Island and all the other groups.”
With that in mind, Ernest and Yael Girard, executive director of the Weeks Bay Foundation, met with Baldwin County local government officials last week to talk about conservation easements. The officials are part of a group known as Plan Lower AL Now (PLAN), who meet about once a month to discuss regional planning efforts and how to deal with burgeoning growth in the county.
According to the Pelican Coast Conservancy website, a conservation easement “is a legal encumbrance — sometimes including a transfer of usage rights — which creates an enforceable land preservation agreement between a landowner and a qualified land protection organization often called a ‘land trust,’ or a government agency, for the purposes of conservation.”
Among the goals of an easement, the website also states, is “it restricts real estate development, commercial and industrial uses, and certain other activities on a property to a mutually agreed-upon level. The property remains the private property of the landowner.”
Conservation easements have been thrust into the public eye in Fairhope recently, after the City Council proposed in May to enter into a management agreement with the Weeks Bay Foundation for the long-contested “Dyas Triangle” property, two undeveloped lots totaling 108 acres surrounding the “Welcome to Fairhope” sign on Veterans Drive.
The city purchased the property in 2013 for $8.75 million, plus legal fees, to settle a decades-old lawsuit with the previous owners. Lately, Mayor Karin Wilson has been at odds with the council on developing the property.
The mayor has suggested it could be the site of a botanical garden, performing arts center, educational facilities and more. But in May, Council President Jack Burrell said development conditions could be negotiated as part of a conservation easement agreement, then “future politicians” would be prevented from “[taking] that land and putting whatever they want on [it].”
Several residents spoke against the proposal, but the council stalled over whether the agreement would amount to an unlawful “disposal” of the land, and a resolution to seek an attorney general’s opinion on the matter has not yet appeared on the council’s agenda. Subsequently, more than 600 people signed a petition on change.org to encourage the council to postpone any agreement pending a land-use study and strategic comprehensive plan.
Last year, the city was approved for a $650,000 Restore Act grant to create a comprehensive plan, but the funds have not yet been distributed and the plan is expected to take two years to complete.
On June 24, Wilson implored the council wait for the comprehensive plan and to seek resident input beforehand, but citing the legal ambiguity, the council voted to table the agreement for a second time.
“This is an example of how planning has been handled for many, many years before this administration: a decision being made with no regard to a strategic plan or [citizen] input,” Wilson said. “There is no reason to do this and no rush. There are legal questions about the fact that the city-owned park land, which cannot be conveyed to a third party without voter approval. Another concern is … governmental functions cannot bind future councils therefore cannot be made in perpetuity.”
Councilman Robert Brown expressed his support of the conservation easement on Facebook, saying a 37-page report by Thompson Engineering released in 2013 “shows putting this parcel in a conservation easement as key to the preservation of Fly Creek.”
“The parameters have not been set on what will be allowed in the easement,” he wrote. “And this will include citizen input … I would love to hear ideas from citizens on what they would like to see this property used for. However, I am not going to stall taking action to preserve one of the great natural resources we enjoy in Fairhope.”
Separately, the city of Gulf Shores signed an easement with the Weeks Bay Foundation to administer efforts on 837 acres in Bon Secour and Oyster Bay. Acquiring the easement cost about $74,000 and the two parcels cost $8.3 million, both coming from National Fish and Wildlife Foundation grants.
“I think it was a good seminar because from a planner’s standpoint it gave them a better understanding,” Ernest said. “We mentioned the BP oil spill and some of the funds being used for land conservation, primarily from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. They’re all aware of this, but we are tying the pieces together.
“These are things as planners they need to be aware of because municipalities do buy land from time to time for park land. Sometimes they work with developers and so forth and get parcels donated.”
Foley city planner Miriam Boutwell, one of the organizers of the PLAN group, said the group found the meeting helpful. PLAN’s usual meeting site is the Graham Creek Nature Preserve in Foley.
“I learned more about the process the Weeks Bay Foundation and Pelican Coast Conservancy follows prior to accepting a donation,” Boutwell said. “There are several ways to donate the land with various benefits. Their staff can answer questions and provide assistance in these matters since each area may have a different reason for donating or giving an easement.”
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