Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Gulf Shores - New Zoning Workshop is Planned

Tuesday, November 29, 2005
Staff Reporter

"Moratorium that would block multi-family projects in commercial zoning to be topic."

The Gulf Shores City Council will hold its second workshop next week to discuss proposed changes that would eliminate the ability to build high-rise residential structures on commercially zoned land.

The meeting, prompted by a proposal to tear down the Sawgrass Landing shopping center on Alabama 59 and replace it with a 17-story hotel, will be held at 4 p.m. Dec. 5 in City Hall.

While a meeting last month focused on the sort of changes to commercial zoning rules being considered, next week's will center on whether council members think there ought to be a moratorium on proposals that seek to build multi-family structures, including hotels and extended-stay facilities, on land zoned for businesses, according to a notice released by the city last week .

In previous discussions, the council was more or less split on whether to mandate a ban on such proposals.

Some said it would be better in the long-run to temporarily enact one rather than wind up with an out-of-place high-rise in the center of town.

Others contended that, beside the Sawgrass Landing redevelopment proposal, there weren't likely to be any high-rises pitched for commercial districts along Alabama 59.

Opponents of a moratorium have also expressed concerns that putting a halt on projects could hurt developers who have yet to submit their designs to City Hall but have spent money on planning, as well as those who have invested in commercial tracts thinking they could build a tower.

Under current rules multi-family structures can stand up to 200 feet tall and include up to 42 units per acre on commercially zoned property.

So far, the Sawgrass Landing designs are the only ones that seek to put a high-rise on commercial property north of the beach, City Planner Steve Foote said last week.

The project, called Sawgrass Condominiums, is planned for 5.45 acres on the south side of the Alabama Gulf Coast Zoo, about a mile north of the beach.

The 17-story tower, according to plans filed with the city, would include 288 extended-stay rooms in 12 floors, 21,000 square feet of commercial space and four floors of parking.

"I think the concern some people have is, if the possibility exists, do you want to leave that possibility out there even if the possibility is remote," Foote said.

Mayor G.W. "Billy" Duke III said that during last month's meeting that several owners of commercial property told city officials that they weren't happy about the proposed restrictions, which could effect their property values.

They also asked to be more involved in any discussions about the zoning, Duke said.

"A lot of them felt they just didn't have any input in it," the mayor said. "Some of them, I think, thought it was too restrictive."

Duke said he opposes a moratorium unless there is enough notice before it begins for those with development plans in the works to file their designs with the city and thus be immune to any bans or zoning changes.

If a moratorium is enacted, Duke said, it would be set to expire on a certain date, giving city officials a limited time to write new rules.

"I don't think it'd take over 60 to 90 days," he said.

Like Duke, Councilman Robert Craft indicated in a late October council meeting that he was hesitant to enact a moratorium, but council members Carolyn Doughty, Joe Garris Jr. and Philip Harris each made comments that hinted at their willingness to halt multi-family proposals in commercial zones.

Councilman Steve Jones, who was not at that October meeting, said in an interview last week that he was opposed to a moratorium and to changes that would significantly restrict a commercial landowner's rights.

Earlier this year, Jones voted against changes to beach-front zoning that decreased the scope of what property owners could build because of what he called "unfair density reduction."

"We have done so much and imposed so many hardships on people," Jones said. "We have gone down that road far enough, I think."

Jones, echoing past comments by Duke, also said that the Sawgrass Condominium proposal applies to the rare piece of commercial property that is large enough and close enough to the Gulf to warrant a high-rise.

Many other tracts north of Fort Morgan Road along Alabama 59, near the center of town, would be too small for 200-foot-tall towers, the councilman said.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Canal Road Widening Set for Late 2009

Sunday, November 27, 2005
Staff Reporter

"We've already got three-quarters of what the state was going to do for them," Russo said. "That would all be done prior to the state even starting -- that doesn't make money sense."
- Steve Russo, mayor

ORANGE BEACH -- For the past few years, city officials have believed that the Alabama Department of Transportation would embark on widening Canal Road from two lanes to five in 2006.

That would have meant that a frequently congested stretch between Alabama 161 and the Foley Beach Express toll bridge would be ready to better handle the traffic that large-scale developments such as The Wharf and Riverwalk Orange Beach are expected to generate when they open.

But in a recent meeting with Transportation Department officials, city leaders, to their chagrin, learned that Orange Beach's main thoroughfare, also known as Alabama 180, is not slated for enlargement until late 2009 -- more than a year after the primary phases of both big developments will be open.

"That's just not acceptable," Mayor Steve Russo said in an interview last week. "Especially when you look at the fact that the city of Orange Beach has once again used private money to help subsidize the project."

To date, three developers, in negotiations with the City Council, have agreed to widen sections of Canal Road that their projects will impact.

Tim James, a partner in the Foley Beach Express toll bridge who won approval in July to redevelop the 34-acre Reynolds Ready-Mix concrete plant into a 903-unit, high-rise condo project, will widen a half mile of the state highway across his property west to the entrance of the Beaver Creek subdivision.

Just west of James's property, AIG Baker LLC is building The Wharf, a mixed-use project that will feature about 1,000 condos and a million square feet of retail space. The project site straddles the toll bridge's southern landing and stretches for about seven-tenths of a mile along Canal Road. The Birmingham firm has agreed to widen this portion of the road before The Wharf opens next summer.

A few miles to the east, a group of developers agreed to expand the highway from Alabama 161 west to Wilson Boulevard -- the north-south street that Orange Beach Elementary is on -- as part of its plan to replace Walter Trent Marina on Terry Cove with a 462-unit condo tower called Grand Harbour.

That leaves the Department of Transportation a 2.2-mile section between Alabama 161 and The Wharf to widen.

"We've already got three-quarters of what the state was going to do done for them," Russo said. "That would all be done prior to the state even starting -- that doesn't make money sense."
Having two widened portions connected by a segment of two-lane road would likely cause traffic bottlenecks, and by not doing all of the construction at once, economy of scale would be lost, the mayor said.

Russo said he spoke with state Sen. Bradley Byrne, R-Montrose, and Gov. Bob Riley at a fund-raiser in Gulf Shores earlier last week about expediting the project's timeline and plans to talk more in depth with the governor this week.

City administrator Jeff Moon said that a committee of citizens and city officials who have compiled a list of transportation needs that would alleviate congestion and improve hurricane evacuations will also bring up the issue with Riley when they meet with him next month.

Though the actual construction of the additional lanes isn't slated until 2009, Ron Poiroux, the Transportation Department's Mobile division engineer, said planning and permitting work is well under way.

"The environmental work is basically complete and the plans are approximately 60 percent complete," Poiroux said. "In the current five-year plan the right-of-way acquisition will begin October 2007 and cost about $2.8 million."

In several spots -- though the Transportation Department is not yet sure exactly where -- the state does not own enough land to build the road, so strips of property must be acquired before construction can begin.

"I've even expressed to Sen. Byrne if right-of-way acquisition is a holdup or an issue, we will again step up to the plate and go out and get the right of ways or condemn them or whatever," Russo said.

Kit Alexander, Orange Beach's staff engineer, has been tasked with helping to acquire property from landowners in order to speed up the process, Moon said. Alexander said she's waiting for the state to finish surveys and release its list of needed land and then will approach owners.

At a recent Planning Commission meeting, city officials mentioned to a representative of one Canal Road property owner, Brett/Robinson, who sought approval to build an employee apartment complex, that the city will likely come back and ask for a strip of the firm's land so that the highway can be widened.

Russo said he expects the city to be able to round up the needed rights of way easily -- particularly from those bringing development plans to the city -- because a wider state highway will be good for business.

"Everybody knows we need it," he said. "The developers acknowledge that we've got to have these improvements and it's best for them."

For his part, Poiroux said that while the city's push to acquire rights of way during site plan reviews could help collect some property, the overall effect of more development may have a negative impact on the overall efforts to collect enough land.

"The more they build, the higher the price of right of way," Poiroux said. "I'm not sure if it's really helping us or not -- prices are really running sky high down there."

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Plans for Riverwalk Expand

Thursday, November 24, 2005
By RYAN DEZEMBER Staff Reporter

ORANGE BEACH -- Along the Intracoastal Waterway between a narrow industrial sector to the west and a vast blanket of pine-covered, undeveloped land to the east sits a swath of cleared property where the newest sprigs of south Baldwin's growing tourist trade are sprouting.

At the moment, the land that straddles both landings of the Foley Beach Express toll bridge isn't much to look at. Hundreds of acres have been cleared, scraped down to pale dirt and cross-hatched by the thick tire tracks of construction equipment.

A grandstand is being shaped on the northern side while on the south, concrete blocks are being stacked to form a movie theater, parking decks and condo towers. At both there are heaps of dirt, scattered construction trailers and newly carved marina basins on the shipping channel's shores.

On the south side of the canal is The Wharf, a 220-acre development that will, according to plans, one day include about 1,000 condo units, more than a million square feet of retail, a movie theater, a towering Ferris wheel and a boardwalk a half-mile long.

On the north shore, a half-oval dug from the canal's banks represents the marina of Riverwalk Orange Beach, a similarly sprawling and varied development.

Being built upon what was once city property, plans for Riverwalk Orange Beach have morphed and expanded greatly since the project was first proposed.

"In 2½ years we've almost tripled in size," said Jimmy Boyd, general manager for The Wharf. "At one time we had a theater and a bowling alley. Now we've got a Gulf World Marine Park."

Featuring exhibits of sharks, penguins and alligators as well as dolphin and sea lion shows, Gulf World will anchor the development, which was valued at about $85 million in early designs but has evolved to a more than $300 million project, according to spokeswoman Rebecca Wilson.

Also added: a water park the developers say will be among the biggest and best in the nation and a 68,000-square-foot convention center that they are hoping will draw visitors year-round.

Boyd said that drastic increase in scope explains why the first portions of Riverwalk, including the marine park, will likely open in spring 2007, a year later than originally planned. Aside from the water park, to which no opening date has been assigned, Boyd said he expects the rest of Riverwalk to open in 2008.

Boyd said the developers, which include Joe Raley Builders of Orange Beach and Mobile real estate conglomerate The Mitchell Co. Inc., have regularly made changes to the plans to make it "the best possible destination attraction facility.

"Because of the changes," he said, "it's taken us longer."

Originally the project's completion was bound by a timeline set by the City Council. Those requirements vanished, however, when Riverwalk developers agreed to buy the 144-acre site from the city.

That land was originally purchased by Orange Beach in 1999 for $5 million and intended to spur economic development around the Foley Beach Express toll bridge, which was then under construction.

In a 2002 agreement with Joe Raley Builders the city agreed to sell them 42 acres on the western side of the expressway for about $1.7 million, and lease them 97 acres on the eastern side of the road for $1 per year for 50 years, provided the builders follow through with plans to construct a tax-revenue-generating tourist attraction.

The company paid the city $78,000 for the rights to develop the land but later decided to buy all of the property.

In three separate deals Orange Beach sold off portions to Raley for a total of more than $12 million. City Administrator Jeff Moon said last week that all but the $1.03 million sale of about 7 acres west of the expressway has closed. That sale should be finalized in coming weeks, though, Moon said.

That parcel along with the 42-acre piece will contain the water park, developers said. Plans for that, including its projected opening date, are not yet settled, Wilson said during a recent tour of the property.

"We really haven't rolled out anything on the water park," she said, adding that announcements would likely come early next year.

Wilson, however, provided a list of the features expected in the park, which is being designed by the firm that planned Typhoon Lagoon and Disney's Blizzard Beach in Orlando, Fla. The primary feature of the park will be a "lazy river," made for innertube rides, which will pass through a shark tank via an acrylic tunnel. Water slides, a wave pool, aviary, a coral reef for snorkeling, aquarium-themed restaurants and 450 condo units are also on the drawing board.

All condo units throughout Riverwalk will be individually owned but run by the management company as though they are hotel rooms, which they will resemble, Boyd said.
Back east, across the Foley Beach Express, is the meat of Riverwalk.

An office tower will punctuate the northern tip of the property, buffered on the north and east with 35 acres of trail-traversed wetlands. South of the tower, along the expressway, will be a vast parking lot.

"Our ultimate goal is for someone to get here, park their car and not get back in until it's time to go home," Boyd said.

A resort management firm chosen to run Riverwalk has plans to shuttle visitors to the beach and back, Boyd said. Riverwalk is also among the Intracoastal Waterway developments planning to create a water taxi service to link various canal resorts.

East of the parking area, hugging a small creek, will be a 12-building shopping village with more than 150,000 square feet of retail space.

Though Boyd and Wilson revealed no tenants, they said that established south Alabama businesses were offered the space first.

"We want that local flair that tourists have come to love," Boyd said. "We'll have some national (retailers) but we don't want that to be the focus."

South of there is Gulf World, Riverwalk's headliner. The list of attractions planned for the park is long, but the swim-with-the-dolphins program, in which guests can pay to get in a pool with the mammals, is the primary attraction.

Sea lions, penguins, harbor seals, otters, flamingos, alligators and sea turtles all have exhibition space drawn into the plans. A 1,000-seat stadium, which is under way along the expressway, will host dolphin and sea lion shows and other exhibits.

Two bridges -- one for walking and another for vehicles -- link Gulf World's space to the resort-fronted marina. A transient marina is meant to be a parking lot for boaters, though a few slips will be reserved for charter fishing and sightseeing vessels, Boyd said.

Restaurants and night spots will surround four condo towers, according to the plans. The convention center -- which has already garnered interest from groups wanting to meet there -- will sit behind them.

"We've had people for the past few months trying to book for 2007 and 2008," Boyd said. The convention center is not likely to open until 2008.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Upscale Mall Deal Gets Judge's Consent

Tuesday, November 22, 2005
By RYAN DEZEMBER Staff Reporter

FOLEY -- Baldwin County Circuit Judge Robert Wilters approved a deal Monday between Gulf Shores and Colonial Properties Trust in which the Birmingham-based development firm will build an upscale mall on 42 acres that it will sell to the city, then lease back.

With Wilters' consent, a $10 million agreement two years in the making is finalized and money can begin changing hands. Meanwhile, construction of the 270,000-square-foot mall, called Colonial Pinnacle at Craft Farms, continues along Alabama 59 just north of the highways intersection with Baldwin County 4.

A 14-screen Cobb Theatre opened there this summer and construction has begun on a Target store at the northern edge of the property. Paul Glascock, who's heading the project for Colonial, said Monday following the judges ruling that the Target should open in July and the mall is expected to be finished in October.

The judge's decision came at the conclusion of a 45-minute bond validation hearing, in which Gulf Shores tested the legality of its pact with Colonial Properties Trust by suing itself. State law requires such a review before public-private partnerships are finalized in order to make certain constitutional guidelines are met, public funds are secure and to ensure solid legal footing so deals can't later be disrupted through court challenges.

Under oath, Mayor G.W. Billy Duke III said the development of Colonial Pinnacle will bring Gulf Shores numerous benefits, including a retail base away from the beach which will give residents a place to shop soon after storms and a tax revenue stream to the city when Gulf-front businesses are shuttered or storm-damaged.

This is something the city's very interested in having, Duke said. It will provide a year-round tax base for the city of Gulf Shores, which the city currently struggles with.

The mayor also said the upscale mall, which will serve as a northern gateway into the community, will add jobs and have the potential to spur more commercial and residential development north of the Intracoastal Waterway.
According to the deal:

Gulf Shores, using $10 million raised in a bond issue, will buy 42 acres of 66 the developer bought in 2004, initially paying half and giving the remainder once the land reaches an appraised value of $40 million.

In two years, or once the mall is completed, Gulf Shores will lease the property back to the firm for 30 years. Rent the first eight years will be the difference between the sales and use taxes generated by the retail center and the city's annual bond debt, which climbs from $1.2 million the first year to about $1.7 million the final year.

Once the city's debt is repaid, the land will be leased to Colonial for $10,000 a year. The lease may be extended by the firm for up to 60 years.

Colonial may buy the property back from Gulf Shores for $400,000 plus whatever debt remains from the bond issue.

The firm will make payments to Gulf Shores equal to whatever the mall's property tax bill would have been had the public not owned the land.

During the hearing, Baldwin County District Attorney David Whetstone asked Duke whether taxpayers would benefit in the deal without being vulnerable to financial loss.

Do you see any risk that the city taxpayers may have on this? Whetstone asked.
No, sir, Duke replied.

Whetstone said his office received no complaints from Gulf Shores residents prior to the hearing and none answered Wilters' call for citizen comments during the hearing. Before ruling, Wilters asked only about the land's current value.

Mike Quillen, the city's attorney, said that while the $10 million equals the amount the real estate trust paid when it bought all 66 acres from City Councilman Robert Craft -- who was not yet in office at the time of the sale -- the movie theater, which cost $6 million to build, sits on the 42 acres. And since Gulf Shores will pay only $5 million until the lands value reaches $40 million, the city will never pay more than the property is worth, Quillen said

Monday, November 21, 2005

Architects Queried on Civic Center

Thursday, November 17, 2005
By RYAN DEZEMBER Staff Reporter

ORANGE BEACH -- City leaders interviewed teams from two Southeastern architectural firms Tuesday in an effort to select a designer for a proposed civic center.

The building would be located on a 240-acre tract just south of City Hall on Alabama 161, but beyond that little has been determined about the project, city officials said. Still in its infancy, no budget, timeline, specific building functions or even its size has been set.

Jeff Moon, city administrator, said that the notion of a civic center came about after the Mystics of Pleasure, an Orange Beach-based Mardi Gras society, offered last summer to build a convention center for the city in the center of town provided they could use it for their Carnival revelry and monthly meetings free of charge.

Eventually city officials decided to expand on the Mystics' proposal and sought design proposals from regional architecture firms.

"We wanted to just look at doing a civic center on our own," Moon said. "There's not many places on the island for local groups to meet or have a dinner -- we're just very, very limited."
Other city officials have said that they'd like for the building to be able to host indoor sporting events such basketball and volleyball tournaments as well as graduation ceremonies, theatrical performances and business conventions.

Six firms responded with interest in designing an Orange Beach civic center, Moon said. In a council work session earlier this year city officials chose two firms to interview for the job: The Architects Group Inc., or TAG, of Mobile, and Spillis Candela DMJM of Coral Gables, Fla.
TAG worked on renovations at the Mobile Museum of Art and the Alabama School of Math and Science and designed the Arthur R. Outlaw Mobile Convention Center and the nearly completed Meyer Real Estate office in Gulf Shores. The firm has also designed schools in Baldwin County, a music company's corporate headquarters in Mobile, a federal courthouse in Pensacola and several Regions Bank branches, including one across the street from the proposed civic center site.

Spillis Candela, one of the country's oldest design firms, lists on its portfolio, Miami International Airport Concourse A, the Birmingham Federal Reserve Bank, Harborside Convention Center in Fort Myers, Fla., AAA's corporate headquarters in Orlando, as well as several judicial facilities, educational buildings and convention centers, including the 35,000-square-foot Emerald Coast Conference Center in Fort Walton Beach, Fla.

TAG's hour-long presentation focused primarily on the firm's local roots, past projects and achievements.

"There's financial advantages of working with a local firm: We can be here in two hours," said Ronald Taylor, a co-owner of the firm. "We certainly have a vested interest in doing the best job."
Asked if TAG would bring on experts in convention center design, public landscaping and permitting, as Spillis Candela had proposed, Taylor said TAG may do that, but only if its staff encountered something it couldn't handle.
Spillis Candela, on the other hand, brought along representatives from other engineering and design firms it would partner with if it got the job, including Volkert Engineering, which is based in Mobile and has an office in Foley.



Spillis Candela's team showed off many of its past and current projects, particularly public projects like convention and civic centers. Much of its hour-long presentation, however, was used to explain a "use matrix" designers would employ in the initial stages to figure out how much space would be required for a host of uses, from sporting events to trade conventions. Whichever use requires, for example the largest kitchen, would determine how big the building's cooking space would be, according to the designer's methods.
The Florida firm also showed conceptual drawings of the type of building it envisioned for the project site. Artists' renderings and technical drawings showed a rectangular building divided by a broken or stepped roof line and a pattern of glass and opaque surfaces on the outer walls.
Michael Kerwin, a Spillis Candela principal, said the building could be arranged either parallel to Alabama 161, giving a "great presence on the street" or perpendicular to the highway to form an "L" shape with City Hall.
Either way, designers envision including a "long, deep sidewalk, almost like a promenade," a large green space between the building and the street and a structure that could be added on to as the city's needs grow. Storage space, including that which could hold roll-away stages and large sections of telescopic seating, would be emphasized in Spillis Candella's designs, Kerwin said, in order to maximize the building's versatility.
Council members said they were impressed with Spillis Candella's presentation, particularly the demonstration of how the building's square footage and use needs would be calculated. City officials also made clear that they wanted a versatile building that could grow with the city.
Councilman Pete Blalock said he didn't want to plan anything short-sighted and Councilman Ed Carroll said: "We need something that can be built on without looking added-on to."
Moon said that the council could choose one of the firms and begin negotiating a contract as soon as the body's Nov. 28 meeting.
Also Tuesday, during a regular meeting, the council, minus Mayor Steve Russo, who was overseas on his honeymoon, voted unanimously to:
Approve developer Larry Wireman's plans to add two 22-story towers to his Caribe planned unit development. The towers, 234-unit Caribe East and Caribe West, with 312 units, will bookend three 14-story towers that are either completed or under construction on Perdido Key.
The development along Perdido Pass will eventually have a total of 1,146 units.

Rezone 29 acres along the Foley Beach Express from a category for recreational vehicle parks to general business. Already a portion of the property was zoned for commercial uses, but the council's move makes the tract, which sits north of the Riverwalk Orange Beach project on the west side of the highway, uniform in its zoning.

Doyle Rabren, the owner, said two hotels and a national chain restaurant, like a Ruby Tuesday or Olive Garden, are planned for the property.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Island Restoration Advocates Shift Debate

More From The Mobile Register

The new argument: Dauphin Island's west end needs to be saved because it protects Mobile from storms
Sunday, November 20, 2005
Staff Reporter

DAUPHIN ISLAND -- When Hurricane Katrina's storm surge dramatically shifted this barrier island's western end northward and destroyed about 200 houses there, it also changed the debate over whether and how the island's beach should be saved.

People on Dauphin Island no longer emphasize the importance of protecting the tax revenue that came from the hundreds of profitable rental houses that comprised an estimated 75 percent of west-end dwellings.

Instead, they're repeating what some coastal engineers have said for years: That the island could shrink away as it migrates, and if it does, Mobile County's primary bulwark against storms will be gone.

In the same way that the disappearance of Louisiana's wetlands made New Orleans more vulnerable to Katrina, the absence of Dauphin Island could open south Mobile County to greater flooding and destruction, said island resident and former island Planning Commission member Brad Cox.

"There may be more things at stake here than our houses and roads," Cox said.

Scott Douglass, a coastal engineer at the University of South Alabama, said that if Dauphin Island's west end washed away, the fishing community on the mainland to the north in Bayou La Batre would become a "sandy shoreline. It will erode very rapidly until it begins to stabilize."

Katrina's storm surge bulldozed the west end's Gulf beach about 50 feet northward, while extending the northside beach by nearly the same amount, said Abby Sallenger, coastal restoration scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey.

But how much it protected Bayou La Batre during the storm is uncertain, Sallenger said. A surge of about 20 feet flooded almost all of the Bayou's dwellings, leaving more than 500 families homeless.

"The waves were going right over the island, though they were crashing a good bit, too. The island was dissipating some energy, but it's hard to say how much," Sallenger said.

Bayou La Batre Mayor Stan Wright said he believes that Katrina's damage to his city would have been far worse were it not for the west end of Dauphin Island. "The island is like a car airbag for us," Wright said. "It's absolutely important to me that something's done to restore the west end." Douglass has long maintained that the west end is vanishing, although the process could take many years. He blames the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, whose dredging of Mobile Ship Channel, he says, has robbed Dauphin Island and neighboring barrier islands of an estimated 20 million cubic yards of sand since 1970.

Although Alabama coastal communities have raised millions in municipal and state dollars in recent years for full-scale beach renourishment projects, Dauphin Island has landed only federal funds for sand walls -- known as berms -- intended for flood mitigation. Part of the problem has been that the west end beach is privately owned, which complicates prospects for public funding.

In 2000, a $1 million berm was placed on the west end's Gulf beach to put a temporary stop to flooding, which happened during even moderate storms. The berm washed away 27 months later.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency now plans on a $4 million project -- a $2 million "bench" to replace some lost beach and a new, larger $2 million berm. The money was originally allotted for damages from Tropical Storm Isidore in 2002, but the money was rolled over as a post-Katrina project, said Mayor Jeff Collier.

The exact location of the new berm remains to be determined because major storms have altered the shape of the island, Collier said.

Such projects will do nothing to stabilize the island's west end, Douglass said.

The Dauphin Island Property Owners Association after Katrina has offered to make the west end beach public if the federal government offers funds for restoration. The association this month sent a letter to Alabama's congressional delegation and to Gov. Bob Riley, expressing their willingness to make the 3½ miles of west end beach and the 166-acre island golf course a public park.

The letter also asked for help in encouraging a quick settlement of the association's lawsuit against the Corps of Engineers, which blames the agency for the island's erosion problem. The settlement could result in a federally funded $7.6 million beach restoration project.

Representatives for U.S. Sens. Jeff Sessions, R-Mobile, and Richard Shelby, R-Tuscaloosa, had no comment Friday. U.S. Rep. Jo Bonner, R-Mobile, who last month said Dauphin Island's beach would have to be open to the public as a condition of receiving federal aid, welcomed the concession but cautioned that the outcome of the corps lawsuit will probably play a major role in what happens next.

Douglass said that only a real beach renourishment project could help the island withstand future storms. An endless series of flood mitigation berms would be a "shameful waste of taxpayer money," Douglass said.

Last week, federal officials turned down a Baldwin County request to spend an estimated $17 million to restore 20 miles of beaches from Daphne to Weeks Bay. The proposal was turned down in part because federal funding couldn't be spent on the primarily private beaches in the area.

This talk of government-funded beach restoration comes during tight times for FEMA. The agency's National Flood Insurance Program for the first time is considering cutting off coverage for some properties.

Congress has asked the agency to examine the claims filed by owners of repeatedly flooded homes, said Josie Pritchard of FEMA. Under the microscope are properties that have flooded four times or those that have flooded fewer times but have received insurance payments greater than the value of the home.

From 1978 to 2004, more than 50,000 properties nationwide have had multiple claims totaling about $2.7 billion, according to agency data. FEMA is talking of a new emphasis on buyouts, but it's uncertain whether there's enough funds to do that.

FEMA always has more people wanting to move out of floodplains than the agency has funds to accommodate, said FEMA spokesman Butch Kinerney.

(Register Washington Bureau Reporter Sean Reilly contributed to this report.)

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Wetlands Serve Important, Varied Functions

Vegetation, hydrology and hydric soils are indicators of wetland tracts
Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Wetlands are extremely important features, particularly in coastal areas. Among their many functions are stormwater storage, erosion control, water purification, sediment trapping, nutrient removal, groundwater discharge and recharge, and providing animal and plant habitat.

Wetlands are also intrinsically valued, providing opportunity for production of food for people and animals, fuel, timber, recreation, aesthetics and education.

But what does a wetland look like? Coastal wetlands include salt marshes, shrub wetlands, brackish marshes, bottomland hardwood swamps and depressional wetlands. But you may not be able to tell any of these, depending on the time of year. Wetlands are technically defined as those areas saturated by surface or ground water often and long enough to support vegetation typical of saturated soil conditions.
There are three categories of wetland indicators. Indicators must be present in all three categories for an area to be considered a wetland. These indicators are vegetation (presence of hydrophytic, or "water loving," vegetation), hydrology (the duration that water impacts a wetland) and hydric soils (soils that are saturated with water for a long period of time).

Indications of hydrophytic vegetation include buttressing of tree trunks and tree "knees." Indicators of hydrology include standing water, dark-colored water marks on tree trunks and leaves on the ground that are gray or stained. Indications of hydric soils include soils that may be blue-gray, greenish or gray in color below the surface, soils that will "ribbon" when squeezed in your hand, soil that may be saturated with water and indications of oxidation (rust-colored areas) around plant root zones.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers holds jurisdiction over wetlands in the United States. To be certain if you have a wetland on your property, contact the corps or a qualified scientific laboratory for a wetlands determination.

(Jody A. Thompson is an environmental extension assistant at Auburn University Marine Extension and Research Center. Sea Grant writers may be contacted at 438-5690. )

How Katrina May Help a Real Estate Seller Avoid Capital Gains Tax

By Steve Dinnen

Q: I bought 12 acres of land in 1994 for $25,000. Since then, I made maybe $2,000 worth of improvements. Recent hurricanes in the area downed many trees, which I feel have hurt the value of my property. The potential expense of clearing the trees weighed heavily in my decision to sell the property for $135,000 a few months ago. I do not feel I have enough time - 180 days - to find and purchase a similar investment property to defer my capital gain. Are there any strategies I can use to lower or defer taxes on this sale?
- J.G., Alabama
A: If you haven't closed on the sale, Jeff Soulard, a CPA and certified financial planner in Salem, Mass., says you have two options to defer taxes.

First, you may enter into an installment sale agreement with the other party that would defer some portion of the gain to future tax periods. While this may offer a tax advantage, it exposes you to the risk that some or all of the future payments may not be received.

Your second option is the deferral you mention, Called a "like kind exchange," the IRS allows you to identify similar property (land held for investment) within 45 days of the sale of the acreage. You would have 180 days from the original sale to acquire the replacement property. Keep in mind that the sales money must be held by a third-party trustee, called a qualified intermediary, who will disburse the funds on any replacement property that you buy.

As a result of hurricane Katrina, you may qualify as an "affected taxpayer" eligible for an extension of these time limits. If you qualify, you may receive an extension of up to 120 days to identify and acquire replacement property. This means you could have 165 days to identify replacement property and 300 days to complete the acquisition. This should give you ample time to identify replacement property and determine if you would prefer to recognize the gain on the original sale or use a like kind exchange to defer the tax.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Condo Market: What's Sold, Selling, Stalling

Sales, slowed by active hurricane season, are expected to kick back into gear by mid-January
Sunday, November 13, 2005
By KATHY JUMPER Real Estate Editor

Broker Patrick Daily said all but a handful of the 50 condominium units at Bel Sole in West Beach's Little Lagoon have presold at prices from $590,000 to $830,000.
"Have they been easy to sell?" said Daily, owner of REMAX of Orange Beach. "Absolutely not. Nothing is easy right now."
Developer Larry Wireman says eight to 10 more units need to sell in the second tower of Turquoise Place in Orange Beach before construction can begin on that building. The units average $1.5 million and up. There are 882 units planned for the project, and most of the 210 units in the first building are sold and sales are under way on the second tower.
"Our sales have picked back up," Wireman said. "We sold five units prior to the week of Katrina and then after Katrina, it was dead for three to four weeks. But we're not complaining about the market." He plans to seek city approval later this month to build 546 more units at his Caribe Resort development in Orange Beach.
In the summer of 2004, entire condo complexes were selling out in a couple of days, and agents were getting multiple offers on some units, according to Realtors. Little more than a year later, condo sales have slowed to a trickle. Realtors blame an active hurricane season, particularly the devastating Hurricane Katrina on Aug. 29, and last fall's Hurricane Ivan.
Today there are 2,650 condo units listed for sale, most of them existing units, according to the Baldwin County Realtors Association. The average sales price for a condo unit is $393,785. Newer units average $450,000 to $750,000, while many pre construction units are priced in excess of $1 million, agents said.
"Buyers are negotiating harder and we've seen a lot of price reductions in existing inventory," said Sheila Hodges, owner of Meyer Real Estate in Gulf Shores and Orange Beach. "We were in need of a price adjustment to maintain a healthy market. You can't have the kind of appreciation we've had in the last 18 months and stay healthy."
Prices have dropped, agents said. For example, a 50-foot Gulf-front lot on West Beach in Gulf Shores was recently listed for $1 million, while similar lots were selling for $1.3 million or more a year ago.
The market should kick back into gear by mid-January, agents said. Preconstruction prices won't drop, but don't expect projects to sell out in 24 hours, agents said.
Meyer agents did not have any trouble selling developers' preconstruction units whose first buyers backed out on after the hurricane, Hodges said. But people who bought units to "flip" or resell, have not seen much activity on those units, she said.
"The market is weeding out the speculator that doesn't have the financial resources to do this in the first place," Daily said. "We know the existing inventory has gotten a little inflated." Some existing units on the market are listed at prices higher, per square foot, than preconstruction units, which range from $550 to $625 per square foot, he said.
Developers at The Wharf on the Intracoastal Waterway in Orange Beach have called clients to make sure they still wanted to buy units that had been reserved in its Boggy Point building since a third of the buyers were from Mississippi and Louisiana, according to Beason Wilkes, director of development for AIG Baker's The Wharf.
"Katrina dealt a blow to some of these folks," he said. "When you've lost your home, lost your business or a business you worked for, it's hard to be concerned about a second or third home," he said.
Most of the buyers of the 160 units at Boggy Point plan to go through with the purchase, he said. The Wharf's first condo building, Levin's Bend, sold all of its 190 units in 24 hours, he said. But that was several months before Katrina hit.
"I think the good properties will continue to sell. It's those that really don't have amenities that are going to be harder to sell," said Wilkes.
Pricing units under $1 million has helped sales, according to Rick Phillips, one of the partner developers of Mandalay Beach, a 500-unit project in Orange Beach. Phillips also has interest in two Gulf Shores projects, the 251-unit The Lighthouse, which opens in the spring, and 142-unit San Carlos, to open next summer.
In the past nine weeks, agents have sold about 180 units in Mandalay's 249-unit east tower, and almost 60 units in the west tower, Phillips said. The prices average $775,000 to $975,000.
"We're pleased with the level of sales," Phillips said. "There's no question we would've been sold out in pretty short order," if Hurricane Katrina hadn't hit the coast.
The market has slowed, but prices will likely continue to rise, agents said.
"People are looking at the market and, even if it gets slow, they don't see beachfront property going down," said J. Collier Merrill of Merrill Land Co., based in Pensacola. His firm's latest project is The Verandas, a planned 336 units on 1,050 front feet on the Gulf in Perdido Key. The unit prices average $1.3 million
"It won't be open until 2008," Merrill said. Buyers "can get locked in at $595 per square foot now. The Destin market is already $800 to $1,000 per square foot."
Presales on The Verandas will begin in another week, and so far, interest has been "overwhelming," he said. "We haven't officially signed anybody up yet, but a lot of people are picking out units as we speak."

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Brett/Robinson Will Build Apartments on Canal Road for its workers

Thursday, November 10, 2005
By RYAN DEZEMBER Staff Reporter

ORANGE BEACH -- In a unanimous vote on Tuesday, the Planning Commission approved real estate conglomerate Brett/Robinson's plans to build three Canal Road apartment buildings to house its employees.
Rapidly rising housing costs in south Baldwin County's beach communities have caused problems for many of the area's tourism industry employers because those who fill the jobs at the core of the service economy can't afford to live locally.
Brett/Robinson, a local company well known for its Phoenix condominiums, has decided to offer its own housing to employees, particularly temporary laborers who bolster the firm's work force dur"We're having trouble getting people to come to this area to work for us," Newman told the Planning Commission. "The housing is not available and we're trying to provide that."
The firm will build the first of three two-story, 5,500-square-foot planned buildings this winter on a Canal Road tract that already holds the firm's laundry facility, Newman said.
According to plans, each of the buildings will hold eight three-bedroom, two-bathroom apartments. The buildings will be west of the laundry building and the first is to be built at the southern end of the property, Newman said.
Earlier in Tuesday's meeting, the Planning Commission unanimously approved the joining of two lots Brett/Robinson owned there. Since the property was already zoned for commercial uses, which allows apartments, no rezoning was required and the Planning Commission's approval of a site plan was all Brett/Robinson needs to begin construction.
Newman said that he's already applied for permits to lay the foundation of the first building and will begin the six-month construction period immediately in hopes that the apartments are ready to host workers in the summer.
The apartments will be geared toward young, single workers and each building will be able house up to 48 employees by putting two in each bedroom, Newman said.
"The market we have now that we're pulling from often is single individuals, not families," Newman said. "So rather than letting one person have a three-bedroom unit, we're looking for housing that would accommodate them short-term." ing the tourist season, said Harris Newman, senior project manager for Brett/Robinson.
Last year, Brett/Robinson hired about 100 people from various countries overseas for six months apiece and the Canal Road apartments would suit such temporary, often student, workers, Newman said.
Once the first building is open, the firm will decide whether to construct the other two, Newman said.
The company's long-range plans, he said, "would incorporate some additional parking around this building and we'll actually have shuttle buses that come into this house and pick up employees and carry them to differ ent locations.
"They also can work at the (laundry) facilities here."
City officials said they were happy to see such a proposal.
"What they're doing is to provide housing on site for their employees and naturally that's going to cut down on the amount of traffic if the employees live in the area," said Jim Lawson, director of Community Development. "We would like to compliment them on making this step."
Mayor Steve Russo, who did not attend the meeting but said he was familiar with Brett/Robinson's plan, said he welcomed the private sector's attempt to help solve the work force housing dilemma. City leaders have had discussions in the last year about the scarcity of housing that relatively well-paid municipal employees were able to afford.
"I would like to see some of these large employers take the initiative to help with their employee housing needs," Russo said in an interview Wednesday.
The mayor added that land costs in Orange Beach may prevent others from following Brett/Robinson's lead. Brett/Robinson, he said, was most likely able to afford such a project because it already owned the land and had a branch of its business operating there: "It probably makes more fiscal sense for them."
In Foley, Huntsville-based developers Randy Lewis and Elizabeth Hall are constructing Lewiston Hall on a Keller Road tract, which would serve a purpose similar to the Brett/Robinson apartments, although it will be open to employees of companies that contract with the builders.
Most of the planned 300 units planned to open by summer will be a cross between a college dormitory and an efficiency apartment with a bedroom and bathroom in each, but shared dining, laundry and fitness rooms, according to the developers. Other features such as a cafeteria and day care are planned as well.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Bon Secour: Coast's New Hot Spot?

Developers want to build 30-story condominium tower in unincorporated Baldwin community
Tuesday, November 08, 2005
BON SECOUR -- A strip of waterfront marked with pilings and foundation from a cabin washed away by Hurricane Ivan could be the site of one of the first major developments in this unincorporated Baldwin County community, developers and residents said.
Rock Point Beach, a development company headed by a Tuscaloosa physician, is proposing a 30-story, 400-condo tower with a 432-slip yacht club and gated community on Bon Secour Bay between Point Clear and Fort Morgan.
Wesley Spruill, owner of Rock Point Beach and an anesthesiologist, holds an option to buy 504 acres to build Bon Soleil Yacht Club, he said.
Less than 30 acres would be developed and the rest, which is mostly wetlands, would be donated to the state or the county for public use, he said.
Before construction can begin, the Baldwin County Planning and Zoning Commission would have to approve the proposed development plan. If approved, Bon Soleil would be among the first big developments in the heavily wooded area dotted with a sprawling mix of mobile, modest and upscale homes. The Bon Secour community has a population of about 1,000.
Smaller residential developments just south of the area, such as Sunset Bay and Sailboat Bay, are more common for that section of the county.
Residents who live near the site expressed concern about an increase in traffic and lack of specific information, but many said they welcomed the expected increase in property values and water and sewer service that will come to the area.
Spruill said he hopes to start selling boat slips and lifetime yacht club memberships for between $75,000 to $100,000 by early spring. People who purchase memberships will be given the option to buy the two-, three-, and four-bedroom condos, he said. Spruill wouldn't give a potential selling price, but said he expects it to be below market value.
Bon Soleil, which will also require some dredging of Bon Secour Bay to accommodate larger boats, will fill a need for boat slips in the growing area near the Intracoastal Waterway, he said.
Last week, consulting engineer Steven Morin presented the development to the Planning Commission and promised cutting-edge construction that would resist hurricane storm surges and plans that would limit damage to the environment.
After commissioners expressed concern about the lack of details outlining the potential toll on the environment, road access and a hurricane evacuation plan for boats and people, they tabled the item until their Dec. 1 meeting.
Commissioners said they wanted those details in writing and they said they doubted the vulnerable area could be made hurricane-proof.
Bon Secour's predicted storm surge ranges from 6.1 feet above the average sea level for a Category 1 storm to 16 feet for a Category 5 storm, according to the Alabama Hurricane Evacuation Study, prepared by local, state and national government agencies.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

17 Story in Gulf Shores Meets 20 Year Old Zoning

Proposal prompts zoning workshop
17-story condo proposal to replace Sawgrass Landing shopping center OK'd by the Planning Commission last week
Wednesday, November 02, 2005
By RYAN DEZEMBER Staff Reporter
GULF SHORES -- With a high-rise project planned for the site of a shopping center along Alabama 59, city officials said they would rework zoning laws in order to limit the proliferation of condo towers on commercial property beyond the beachfront.
Under current rules, any property zoned BG, for "business: general," allows buildings up to 200 feet tall as well as density levels up to 42 dwelling units per acre, standards which are common on the densely developed beach, but unheard of in the rest of the city.
According to city records, Donald S. Ryals has asked to build a 17-story building called Sawgrass Condominiums, on the site of the Sawgrass Landing shopping center. The 5.45-acre site is just south of the Alabama Gulf Coast Zoo and north of the Waterville USA amusement park, about a mile from the beach, according to the plans.