Since early 2017, when Gov. Robert Bentley made the unilateral decision to spend $1.8 million in oil spill recovery money to renovate the state-owned governor’s beach residence on the Fort Morgan peninsula, there has been only one documented record of its use.
But earlier this month, a spokesman for Gov. Kay Ivey told Lagniappe she intends to use the property more often, adding that, going forward, “a record will be kept to confirm how the property is used.”
Lagniappe first sought records related to the use of the residence in November. After being told the governor’s office “does not maintain those records,” we were directed to the Department of Finance, where it was determined there were also no records responsive to the request.
In January, Special Assistant to General Counsel Teresa Lee returned a single-page email indicating the property was used just once — to host a dinner between Ivey and the Gulf United Metro Business Organization (GUMBO) on June 23, 2017.
Since, Press Secretary Daniel Sparkman disclosed Ivey has visited the mansion on one other occasion, as an overnight accommodation when attending a local meeting. Further details were not provided.
The property at 504 Gulf Way Drive was deeded to the state in 1963 by the Surfside Shores Development Corp., a Mississippi-based company that developed the neighborhood. In exchange for $1, the two lots were sold under “the condition that said parcel of land shall be used solely for the construction and maintenance for a residence for the Governors of the State of Alabama.”
According to news reports, the house on the site was built in 1965, but had fallen into disrepair by the late ‘90s. At the time, Gov. Fob James had it boarded up while considering seeking private donations for its renovation.
But the deed also stated “any attempted sale or use … for any other purpose shall, without further notice, cause the said parcel of land to revert to the Grantor, its successors or assigns.”
In 2004, E. Lamar Little, the last surviving member of Surfside Shores Development Corp., sued the state in an attempt to reclaim the property, arguing the deed was void because the residence was boarded up and abandoned. A Montgomery County judge eventually agreed with the state: although the residence was no longer in use, the state continued to maintain it and therefore the terms of the deed were valid, according to the judge.
But later that year, the property was further damaged when Category 3 Hurricane Ivan came ashore a few miles to the east. Emergency repairs were completed using disaster relief funds, but the residence remained boarded up and unused.
In 2009, Little unsuccessfully attempted to reclaim the deed a second time. The house remained vacant until Bentley’s total restoration began about two years ago.
“Many years ago the Fort Morgan residence was given to the people of Alabama for the governor’s personal use,” Sparkman noted. “It was revitalized during the previous administration and Gov. Ivey appreciates the opportunity to use the rejuvenated property to showcase Alabama’s Gulf Coast. As part of her new administration, Gov. Ivey is expanding the usage of the Fort Morgan residence to take advantage of its potential. First, it remains available for the governor’s personal use and other invited guests. It will also be used for meetings hosted by the governor along with economic development opportunities.”
Meanwhile, Casi Callaway, executive director of Mobile Baykeeper, said there are many unfunded environmental projects eligible for BP oil spill money that could have been accomplished for $1.8 million or less.
“Sewage treatment facility upgrades … important oyster reef restoration projects, land acquisition and so many important projects,” Callaway wrote Monday. “Those funds were accessible for the governor to use in a more discretionary fashion, but a governor committed to our community, economy and environmental needs would have made this decision.”
After its renovation in 2017, State Auditor Jim Zeigler also toured the property to account for its 98 state assets valued at $101,259.80. His annual report noted everything was accounted for, but a spokesperson for Zeigler this week said a subsequent study of the property’s cost and benefit has yet to be concluded.
At the time of his audit, Zeigler questioned the need for the governor’s office to have three residences: the Gulf Shores property and two in Montgomery. Media has never been allowed to tour the beach property, and Zeigler said Wayne Hoyt, the state’s facilities director, would not allow him to take photos of the interior.
Sparkman suggested there “will likely be a meeting” at the residence in May that will be open to media, but prior to then no one is authorized to speak to the media or give a tour.
“There is no security log of visitors to the residence, but moving forward a record will be kept to confirm how the property is used,” he said. “The goal of the Ivey administration is to be open and transparent about the usage of the Fort Morgan residence; the home is a gift to Alabama and will be used to promote and enhance our state.”
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