An April 15 deadline is looming for anyone who wants to weigh in on the city of Orange Beach’s proposal to build a new bridge and road across Wolf Bay. The approximately 5-mile long project will fill roughly 7.5 acres of designated wetlands and disturb a total of 108 acres of property on a two-lane corridor between County Road 95 and State Route 161, according to the city’s application on file with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE).
The Corps’ Mobile District is soliciting comments from all interested parties in order to “consider and evaluate the impacts” of the project. Comments received will be incorporated into an Environmental Impact Statement and will be considered by the USACE to determine whether to issue, modify, condition or deny a permit for this proposal.
The city filed its application March 16, noting it plans to discharge approximately 60,000 cubic yards of commercially obtained sandy-clay fill material into the wetlands, but will offset the damage by purchasing wetland mitigation credits. The project is part of the city’s long-term transportation improvement plan, which intends to increase the number of north-south corridors between Perdido Beach Boulevard and Canal Road, while also adding an additional hurricane evacuation route and a direct route between the city and the Josephine community on the north side of Wolf Bay.
The city’s corporate limits extend to envelope two separate parcels north of the bay, one known as “Sapling Point” just west of Barber Marina and another much larger tract of mostly undeveloped land on either side of County Road 95. The area is referred to as the “Wolf Bay District” in the city’s 2020-2035 Community Preservation and Growth Management Plan, where it is envisioned to become a “resort area” with working waterfronts that include marinas, bait shops, boat repairs, small retail stores, restaurants, eventually “offering access to the waterfront, creating a town center, encouraging mixed-use with commercial support, and providing for walkability and multi-modal components.”
It is currently designated “marine resort” and “planned unit development” in the city’s zoning ordinance.
Last August, Lagniappe reported how negotiations with a private property owner effectively stalled the project and today, Mayor Tony Kennon said it “remains on hold,” but the city is still pursuing the USACE permit because of the substantial engineering and consulting work already performed and the USACE permit’s 10-year lifespan.
“At the time we began [planning], Trump had just gotten into office and was considering an infrastructure bill,” Kennon explained. “So we wanted to have something ready to go if and when that happened so we could secure federal funding.”
For local funding, the city implemented a 2 percent lodging tax increase that generates between $5 million and $6 million per year. The project’s total cost is expected to be $70 million. Over the life of the tax, it is projected to generate around $120 million, giving the city a cushion if the project is delayed or paid for in whole with local funds.
Last week, the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) sent out a news release encouraging public comments, noting it asked the Corps for an extension of the comment period due to distractions of the COVID-19 pandemic, but the agency denied the request.
“Orange Beach wants to build this bridge to be able to annex Josephine for a marina resort and other developments,” SELC Program Communications Manager Emily Driscoll wrote. “Our main concern is that this project may open this relatively rural area up to poorly planned development. The bay serves as a nursery for many types of commercially and recreationally important fish, crab, shrimp, and other Gulf of Mexico species; and, the land surrounding the bay is outstanding habitat for many other species, including the federally-protected eastern indigo snake and the state-protected gopher tortoise. The development of this area could put this nursery and multiple species at risk.”
According to the city’s application, a preliminary review indicates the proposal “would have no effect” on endangered or threatened species including the West Indian manatee, wood stork, piping plover, red knot, green sea turtle, Kemp’s ridley sea turtle, loggerhead sea turtle, Gulf sturgeon, Alabama beach mouse, and Perdido Key beach mouse. But it did acknowledge the presence of gopher tortoises, which dig burrows also used by eastern indigo snakes. As a result, the city reportedly “coordinated with the USFWS and the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources for the relocation of any gopher tortoises located within the project corridor prior to construction.”
Kennon said the SELC’s allegations regarding poor planning and the annexation of Josephine are misleading or false. The two primary property owners in the footprint of the proposal — David Lawrenz and George Barber — are “first class” developers, he said. Years ago, Lawrenz submitted a master plan for his property “that is very, very environmentally friendly.”
“[Lawrenz] was going out of his way to have an eco-friendly development and to me it would be exactly what [the SELC] would want,” Kennon said. “We want to make sure we have a hand in how it’s developed or what it looks like, but the last thing we want to do is build 30-story condominiums over there, to pack the density so it’s not something special. And we have no intention of annexing anybody into Orange Beach that doesn’t want to come into Orange Beach.”
The SELC is also concerned that hardening the north shore of the bay “will threaten the surrounding communities’ resilience and ability to adapt to climate change and will weaken the coastal ecosystem’s ability to adapt and migrate as well. Finally, developing this area will lead to increased discharge of sediment, fertilizers, municipal wastewater discharges, and other pollutants into Wolf Bay.”
Kennon noted the Orange Beach Water Authority is a separate entity from the city, one it has no control over.
Those who interested in submitting comments on or before April 15 can write to Mr. Dylan C. Hendrix at firstname.lastname@example.org, or (251) 694-3772, or by mail at USACE, Mobile District, Regulatory Division, Attention: Mr. Dylan C. Hendrix, Post Office Box 2288, Mobile, Alabama 36628-0001, and refer to Public Notice Number SAM-201700752-SBC.
Comments should also be copied to the Alabama Department of Environmental Management at email@example.com, or be sent to: Alabama Department of Environmental Management, Mobile Branch / Coastal Section, 3664 Dauphin Street, Suite B, Mobile, Alabama 36608.
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