Monday, January 30, 2006

Gulf State Park Suit Tossed by Supreme Court

Two other cases remain pending
Saturday, January 28, 2006
Staff Reporter

BAY MINETTE -- The Alabama Supreme Court on Friday tossed out a suit -- filed by Baldwin County District Attorney David Whetstone -- that questioned the legality of a deal between Auburn University and the Conservation Department to build a hotel and convention center at the old Gulf State Park resort.

The high court called Whetstone's suit "nothing more than an action by the state against itself seeking an advisory opinion."

Hurricane Ivan mangled the park resort in September 2004, but it was already slated for renovation before that, according to reports.

Last year, Auburn University and the Conservation Department announced plans to redevelop the Gulf State Park facilities. Since then, a trio of suits filed here and in Montgomery has contested the plans to replace the surfside park's former 144-room hotel with a new $100 million, 350-room hotel and convention center.

Whetstone filed suit in May, questioning the legality of the deal and whether it was done in the best interest of Alabamians. The state Supreme Court decision reads that the Gulf Park Authority is "a public corporation and instrumentality of the state.

"We conclude that the state's complaint fails to allege a justiciable controversy between the defendants and the state," the ruling states.

Whetstone said he was disappointed with the decision.

"I really thought the cases should be tried in the county where the great park sits," Whetstone said. "The average person in Baldwin County is not represented. Apparently, you could not have a voice in this issue, unless you have a lawyer."

A month after Whetstone filed suit, Gulf Beach Hotel filed an action similar to Whetstone's in Montgomery, maintaining that the project is illegal and unconstitutional because it pits public entities against private business. The Perdido Beach Resort is in Orange Beach.

A decision on that case was still pending, said Ben Graves, with Stone Granade & Crosby, the firm that represents plaintiff Jim Meadlock, who had wanted the case heard in Montgomery.

As for Friday's decision, he said, "We're very pleased for our client."

Meadlock testified in Baldwin County in July, saying he would have difficulty conducting business if the hotel and conference center were opened.

A decision also has yet to be made in another lawsuit that former state Conservation Commissioner Charley Grimsley filed in Montgomery, claiming the proposal violates a 1998 constitutional amendment because the new facilities would be run by a private company.

Meanwhile, old damaged hotel and resort sits vacant, and any delay with court proceedings, Whetstone said, could pose a threat to the area.

Whetstone said he would look into filing a request for a speedy decision on the issue.

"We can't allow the great state park to sit in the condition that it's in," he said. "A delay would be a great injury, not only to the people of Baldwin, but to the people of Alabama. It's a nuisance because nothing is being done. It's becoming dangerous, and it's going to become more dangerous."

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Gulf Shores - 1,244 New Units to Open for 2006

Sunday, January 29, 2006

A total of 1,244 new condominium units is scheduled to open in 2006 in Orange Beach and Gulf Shores, according to the Alabama Gulf Coast Convention & Visitors Bureau. Last year's hurricane season caused construction delays on many of the projects, and some of the opening dates may be moved back a month or two.

--Caribe Resort's phase 3 in Orange Beach, 200 units.

--Crystal Shores West, Gulf Shores, 108 units in May.

--Crystal Tower, Gulf Shores, 170 units in May.

--Graceful Palms, Gulf Shores, 15 units.

--Kiva Village's phase 1, Fort Morgan, 30 units in September.

--Lighthouse Condos, Gulf Shores, 251 units in June.

--Navy Cove Harbor, phase 2, Fort Morgan, 28 units in June.

--Phoenix All Suites West, Gulf Shores, 84 units opened in early January.

--San Carlos Condos, Gulf Shores, 150 units in September.

--Seawind Condos, Gulf Shores, 155 units in August.

--The Colonnades, Gulf Shores, 53 units in May.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Orange Beach Mayor Resigns

Wednesday, January 25, 2006
Staff Reporter

Orange Beach Mayor Steve Russo resigned from that position this morning, citing his wish to distance himself and his legal troubles from city government.

He declined to comment on charges levied against him in state and federal indictments last week, but said it would be easier for the city to conduct normal business without the distraction of his pending trials.

Russo said he would leave office immediately.

City Councilman Pete Blalock, mayor pro tem, will take over the city's top job until the City Council votes to appoint a new mayor for the three years remaining in Russo's four-year term.

Blalock, City Council members Tracy Holiday and Jeff Silvers, city employees, family members and friends were present for Russo's announcement at City Hall this morning.

Russo is also scheduled for arraignment in this afternoon in U.S. District Court in Mobile on federal public corruption charges.

In two state indictments made public last week, Russo was charged with a host of misdemeanors and felonies. He faces, in one indictment, seven counts of violating Alabama elections law by not reporting $33,000 in campaign contributions and using it to pay for vacations and personal items. The second includes 14 counts associated with soliciting and accepting bribes from developer Jim Brown and breaking state ethics laws.

Half of the seven-count federal case against Russo relates to the state's charges of election fraud, alleging that because he used the unreported funds to pay credit card bills via phone and U.S. mail, he committed felony wire and mail fraud. The other half alleges that the mayor, during an official trip to New York, illegally billed the city for personal expenses including a limousine service and expensive theater tickets.

Also named in state indictments are Brown, City Attorney Larry Sutley and former City Councilman Joe McCarron.

Gulf Shores Top Agent Attends Invitation-Only CyberStar Gathering

Top Agent Attends Invitation-Only CyberStar® Gathering

Mike and Chris Mitchum of RE/MAX of Gulf Shores were two of only 130 top real estate agents invited to attend The Allen F. Hainge CyberStar® Summit recently in San Antonio, TX.  The nationally recognized CyberStar® Summit is an annual invitation-only networking and idea sharing conference open only to outstanding real estate agents from the US, Canada, Mexico, the Bahamas and Australia.

A leading member of the CyberStars®, Mike has long been a market leader in Gulf Shores and Orange Beach due to his commitment to serving customers and clients and his use of technology to meet the needs of today’s consumer.  Mitchum’s emphasis on his Web site ( as a top consumer resource and on using technology for effective communication and service has made him a unique success.

The three day event focused on using technology and personal marketing strategies to better serve clients and customers.  During the session, Mitchum participated in information and discussion sessions on strategies and tools for marketing property, customer service strategies, blogging and pod casting as communication tools, staging property for faster sale, strategies for a changing market, success in international real estate, implementing consumer-oriented Web sites, client appreciation strategies and more.

According to Mitchum, attendance at the annual CyberStar® Summit provided many personal and professional benefits::

 “We are honored to have been invited to our industry’s most exclusive gathering.  Sharing with these other extraordinary real estate agents for three days pays big dividends in many areas of our business.  Most importantly, we learned more about using the latest in today’s technology and successful strategies so that we can better serve my clientele and help them achieve a more successful home sale or purchase.  We spent three full days sharing marketing and customer service strategies that really work and that result in higher client satisfaction.

“My clients are continually complimenting me on the service, tools and technology I use to meet their needs, and we owe that to our association with the CyberStars® and to the fact that we share among ourselves so freely.  In short, we am surrounded by the best agents in real estate for three days at every Summit.  We share with them, they share with me, and we all translate our newfound knowledge into increased services for our clients.”

The newest technology in real estate communication is free. Go to  and subscribe to “Bloggin At the Beach” or call Mike at 948-1230.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Orange Beach Needs Standards in Dealing with Developers

Associated Press

MOBILE, Ala. - A Baldwin County grand jury that indicted Orange Beach's mayor and three others on corruption charges recommended that the Alabama Legislature set standards for cities to deal with developers, particularly on the Gulf Coast.
The grand jury in November heard testimony about Orange Beach's policy on "certain fees, charges and special considerations" required for developers to obtain variances for buildings.
A builder, for example, may offer to build a ball park, give up some parking spaces, or donate land for public use in exchange for permission to build a taller building or add more condominiums to a project.
The grand jury found that the fees and other charges required by Orange Beach officials are "inconsistent, based upon no standards and without legislative guidance or oversight."
In its report, the grand jury said the Orange Beach system encourages "discrimination, fraud and improper inducements."
High-rise condos and hotels have been rising along the Alabama coast, squeezing out smaller dwellings and altering the looks of laid-back beach retreats.
Former Orange Beach City Councilman Mike Schiehl said the corruption charges reflect on city operations.
"It's a shame," Schiehl said Saturday, recalling debates over condo construction have gone on since the first 14-story building went up after Hurricane Frederic hit in 1979.
In its report, the grand jury said developers should bear the cost of certain infrastructure improvements which are necessary due to development not only in Orange Beach but anywhere in the state.
The grand jury urged the Legislature to change the law to give cities guidance on how fees could be assessed with appropriate standards. Those impact fees could go for drainage, roads or other public projects.
Even small decisions by the Orange Beach City Council and city planners could bring millions of dollars in additional profits to a developer, Baldwin County District Attorney David Whetstone said Friday.
Whetstone said in one case, the city considered an offer of some condominiums for use by city employees at reduced rental rates. Whetstone said that could be viewed as using a public office for personal gain.
Other cities offer incentives to attract developers, but Whetstone said Orange Beach officials ask developers: What can you do for us?
In the past three years, Orange Beach has secured pledges from developers totaling over $100 million in value for parks, beach accesses and case for infrastructure improvements, the Mobile Register reported in a story Saturday.
With a population of about 5,500, Orange Beach and its neighbor, Gulf Shores, are both in the spotlight in dealing with developers.
Whetstone said Orange Beach is not just a city, but a "diamond" in the state because of its beaches and tourism economy. Its population can grow to 50,000 in tourist season.
Local government decisions on beach construction affect the rest of the state, Whetstone said.
Orange Beach Mayor Stephen Russo is accused of misspending campaign funds and using his office to obtain use of a New Orleans condominium purchased by developer Larry Wireman, who was not charged.
Wireman, who is planning condo towers on the coast, had applied for a zoning variance for an Orange Beach project.
Former Orange Beach City Council member Joseph McCarron is charged with ethics law violations for voting for projects in which he had a business interest or gained business from the vote.
Also indicted were Orange Beach city attorney Laurence Sutley and developer James Brown.
Russo is accused of failing to disclose a partnership with Brown and Sutley in a firm called American Hot LLC. Russo voted on May 3, 2005 to approve a Terry Cove development involving Brown and another at Romar Villas.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Orange Beach Political Indictments

Friday, January 20, 2006
Staff Reporter

Orange Beach Mayor Steve Russo was indicted Thursday on federal criminal charges that he violated Alabama elections laws by not reporting more than $33,000 in campaign contributions prior to his 2004 re-election and used the money to pay for vacations, casino trips, clothing, a computer and other personal expenses.

In addition, the mayor, former City Councilman Joe McCarron, City Attorney Larry Sutley and local developer Jim Brown were indicted on state charges alleging a web of bribery, conflict of interest and other ethics violations in which Russo wound up with a BMW automobile and 33 percent interest in a corporation that holds a $1.6 million beach property in Gulf Shores.

All four men were briefly jailed at the Baldwin County Corrections Center in Bay Minette on Thursday morning as they were booked on the state charges. McCarron, Sutley and Brown each were released after posting $10,000 bond while the mayor, who was also charged by the state for campaign finance violations in a separate indictment, was required to pay $20,000 before being freed, according to prosecutors.

All four declined to comment on the charges.

"Orange Beach with its ongoing explosion of development is an important asset to the state of Alabama," said Debra Mack, the FBI's Mobile-based special agent in charge. "Therefore it is vital that its public officials be held accountable for honest government."

Russo is expected to surrender to federal authorities in connection with those charges sometime next week, prosecutors said.

The nine-page, seven-count federal indictment against the mayor was originally returned by a grand jury in late December but not unsealed until Thursday. In it, prosecutors trace how the mayor wrote checks drawn from his "Steve Russo Campaign Account" -- which he reported in required court filings as being empty -- to pay credit card bills he rung up shopping in New Orleans and gambling and dining in Biloxi.

In early 2004, on an official trip to New York to meet with financial firm, Merchant Capital, regarding an upcoming municipal bond issue, the indictment alleges Russo charged personal expenses, including $800 in Broadway theater tickets and a $1,700 on-call limousine service, to a credit card owned by the company, which were later billed back to the city as part of the company's services associated with underwriting the bond.

"The indictment alleges that Mayor Russo defrauded the citizens of Orange Beach to their right to give honest services as mayor, free from self-dealing, self-enrichment and deceit," said U.S. Attorney Deborah Rhodes at a morning press conference in her Mobile office. Rhodes was flanked by Alabama Attorney General Troy King, Baldwin County District Attorney David Whetstone and Mack.

Said Whetstone: "You can't serve two masters.
"If you're going to be a public servant, if you're going to be a mayor or you're going to be on the council, you have to look out for the public good and not your personal good. And when your personal good overrides the public good, there are heavy penalties to pay under our law."

The prosecutors, who again convened for an afternoon news conference in Daphne to explain the state charges, stressed that the two-year probe is ongoing and that more indictments are possible.

Russo, 44, faces a maximum penalty of up to 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine for each of the seven counts of fraud charged in the federal indictment. The state charges, a mix of felony and misdemeanor violations, carry varying penalties.

"You're talking about officials who are selected by the people in a town to run their town -- we don't take that lightly. We don't take coming in and accusing them of these sorts of things lightly," King said in the later news conference. "But neither can we ignore it."

Russo first came into office in 1996 as a city councilman. Two years later he became mayor in a special election held to fill the post left empty after a Baldwin County judge removed the 1996 election's winner, Bert Krages, for failing to comply with campaign financial disclosure laws.

In 2000, he handily defeated challenger William Benjamin, collecting 72 percent of the vote. In a heated contest in 2004, Russo edged single-term City Councilman Brett Holk by fewer than 200 votes to retain the post.

That contest was preceded by a frenzied campaign in which Russo and his political allies, including McCarron, 67, fought using the tools typical of big-time politics -- voter polls, high-paid political consultants and attack ads -- to retain control of the rapidly growing resort and the multimillion-dollar development decisions that came with the job.

Developer-funded political action committees raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to support the pro-growth slate. Russo, according to his campaign finance disclosures, raised or accepted in-kind contributions totaling nearly $47,000 to support his election.

Of that he reported getting $8,000 from the Beach PAC, which raised more than $104,000 -- including $35,000 from prominent developer Larry Wireman's partner Judy Ramey -- to support Russo and his allies. The entry on his campaign forms indicating that gift, which was used for advertising, is starred. Next to it a note is handwritten in the margin: "Not sure of amount have had no contact."

The Beach PAC spent nearly all of the money it raised with PMM Inc., the political marketing firm owned by PAC operator and former Roy Moore supporter Dean Young, who was appointed by Russo to an unpaid position on the city Planning Commission immediately following the August election.
Because Young reported spending nearly all of the money with his firm, specifically how the funds were allocated is blurry. But federal prosecutors said that the money Russo allegedly concealed came from individuals and local businesses and not any political action committee.

When asked whether the amount of non-cash contributions Russo reported receiving from the Beach PAC was accurate, two federal prosecutors said only that the investigation is ongoing.

Russo acknowledged in his campaign finance disclosures raising or accepting in-kind, or non-cash, contributions totaling nearly $47,000 to support his re-election to the $25,000-a-year part-time post.

In his annual campaign finance report for 2005, the mayor claimed that his account was empty after donating what remained of his funds -- $223.12 -- to the Holy Spirit Episcopal Church in Gulf Shores in September 2004, just weeks after his successful re-election. Federal prosecutors contend in the indictment, however, that Russo filed false paperwork with Baldwin County Probate Court and actually carried a $33,000 balance in his re-election account.

Instead, the indictment alleges, Russo used undisclosed campaign funds to:

Buy a $3,500 personal computer system in September 2004.

Pay cable television bills at a downtown New Orleans condo lent to him from October 2004 to May 2005 by its owner, Wireman.

Purchase $2,000 in clothing from a New Orleans store on Nov. 6, 2004.

Cover a weekend stay in Biloxi in March 2004 in which $1,000 was spent on lodging and dining at two separate casinos and $300 was spent on clothing from a Mississippi retailer.

Between October 2004 and April 2005 four drafts from his campaign account -- three checks and one phone payment -- totaling $13,567.04 were written to pay his personal credit card bill, according to the indictment. Since Russo allegedly used the U.S. mail and phone lines, he faces wire and mail fraud charges, the indictment says.
During a July 2005 City Council meeting Russo admitted that he had stayed in Wireman's New Orleans condo "on three or four occasions" and that it had no bearing on how he voted on the Caribe Resort developer's projects. Later, federal prosecutors subpoenaed the city's recording of that meeting and the indictment says that by making such statements the mayor "intended to conceal from the citizens of Orange Beach that he had used campaign funds to pay for cable television at the condominium."

Wireman, though either mentioned or alluded to in both the federal and state indictments, has not been charged.

One of the state's indictments against the mayor -- seven counts -- parallels the federal charges that he used undisclosed campaign money for personal expenses. The other indictment, though, includes 14 counts related to other alleged criminal activity.

Four of the counts relate to Russo's use of Wireman's New Orleans condo, that the mayor "intentionally solicited or received something of value ... for the purpose of influencing his official action."

That indictment further alleges that Russo used his office to obtain from Brown a $10,000 check made payable to his current wife but then live-in girlfriend, Crystal McDonald, so that she could buy a car. Brown also is charged with giving the mayor money to buy himself a BMW as well as a 33 percent stake in American Hot LLC, a corporation created to hold a $1.6 million beach property. Other ethics charges stem from Russo not revealing the business relationship and continuing to vote on Brown's developments.

Though Sutley's secretary is listed as the principal of American Hot, Sutley, Brown and Russo signed a $1.6 million mortgage used to buy a beach property in Gulf Shores, according to Baldwin County Probate Court records.

Sutley, who wrote the incorporation papers that established Orange Beach in 1984 and has worked as the city's highly visible attorney since 1998, is also charged in the state indictments with receiving a one-third share in American Hot as a bribe. Sutley is also a former assistant Baldwin County district attorney.

Brown -- whose developments include Grand Harbour at Terry Cove and Romar Villas -- faces six counts of bribery.

McCarron faces 18 counts of using his former position on the City Council and the Planning Commission in order to sway business to his insurance firm, Orange Beach Insurance Inc.

McCarron joined the council in 1998. He was appointed by then-Gov. Fob James after another council member resigned and was re-elected to the post in 2000. During the 2004 campaign, McCarron faced an uphill battle after constant allegations from residents that he should not vote from his posts on both the council and the Planning Commission, to which he was appointed by Russo and other council members, on the projects of several developers whom he insured, including Brown when McCarron voted to allow a building at Grand Harbour to exceed city height limits.

"While someone was an insurance customer of him or his agency, he intentionally voted on a project in which they had interest as owner or applicant and subsequent to the vote he received insurance business associated with that project," the indictment says.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Orange Beach Council Approves Bridge Agreement

Thursday, January 19, 2006
Staff Reporter

ORANGE BEACH -- The City Council this week unanimously approved an agreement with Macquarie that will allow the Australian bank to acquire the local company that owns the Foley Beach Express toll bridge and preserve the public-private partnership on the span.

Essentially, the council had to sign off on the pending deal between Macquarie and the Baldwin County Bridge Co., the firm formed solely to build and manage the toll facility by former gubernatorial candidate Tim James, his brothers, and John McInnis Jr.

As part of the deal, Mayor Steve Russo said, a letter from the city was required "that certifies and represents to Macquarie the terms of the agreement that we had with the Baldwin County Bridge Co. and that that agreement will still be in full force and there are no disputes between us and the Baldwin County Bridge Co. currently."

In 2003 the council agreed to give the bridge company $1.2 million annually for 10 years. In exchange, the city gets a royalty for each car that crosses the span for 30 years and an option to, at the end of that term, either buy the bridge or continue to collect fees for 30 more years.

Also, the bridge and surrounding property owned by James and his partners were annexed into Orange Beach and all full-time residents were given a card, which normally costs $35 a year, that allows them to cross the bridge for $1, or half the typical $2-per-trip-toll.

Orange Beach's position in the deal will not change despite the new ownership, Russo said. City Administrator Jeff Moon told residents during Tuesday's meeting that the provision allowing residents a half-rate pass, which was an important aspect in winning support for the partnership, will also remain in effect.

"This will have no impact on that whatsoever," Moon said.

Besides reciting the terms of the 2003 partnership and acknowledging Macquarie's position in them, Tuesday's agreement includes a clause in which the city disavows any intent or knowledge of plans to bridge the Intracoastal Waterway near the toll span except for a proposed Wolf Bay bridge.

In December, city officials traveled to New York to talk with Macquarie officials about partnering with Orange Beach on that span as well.

Macquarie worked on the 2004 refinancing of the bridge company's $36.3 million debt. That transaction, which came shortly after a Baldwin County circuit judge approved the public-private partnership, totaled $67 million when closing costs, pre-payment penalties and extra funds made available to the company were added to the debt amount, according to a Macquarie news release.

Terms of the pending sale, including the sale price, have not been released, though James said last week that users of the bridge will not notice a change and that he and McInnis will retain their roles in the facility for up to five years.

Also Tuesday, the council voted unanimously to hire Mobile lawyer Robert Campbell III to navigate the city and neighboring Gulf Shores through the legal hurdles in establishing separate school systems.

The cities had wanted to break away from the Baldwin County Public Schools system and form a joint district. But they faced insurmountable political hurdles to do so and instead are attempting to form two separate districts that would contract with each other to share students, administration and facilities.

"Mr. Campbell will be our guide in helping us develop our own school system in the legal and correct way," Councilman Pete Blalock said. "He will help us get to the part where we have our referendum."

Residents would have to approve any tax increase needed for a new school district. A study commissioned by the cities found that Baldwin's beaches could have the most well-funded schools in the state with only a modest property tax hike, and city officials are researching the feasibility of exempting full-time residents from any increase.

The cities had previously hired lawyers with expertise in the formation of school districts from the Birmingham firm Bradley, Arant, Rose and White. That firm, however, has worked for the Baldwin County Public Schools system and needed Superintendent Faron Hollinger to sign off on the lawyers' dealings with Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, which he didn't, Moon said.

Hollinger has said that his preference is to keep the county school system intact.

Like its previous contract with the Birmingham lawyers, Orange Beach's measure allows for up to $10,000 in billing from Campbell -- anything over that amount needs approval from the council. Gulf Shores, which split the bills from the Birmingham attorneys, is expected to approve a similar agreement with Campbell at its next meeting, Moon said.

City officials have said that they'd like to have the district ready in time for the fall start of school in 2007.

In a letter to Russo and Gulf Shores Mayor G.W. "Billy" Duke III, Campbell wrote that doing so would be possible if the process, which includes negotiations with the county system regarding student placement and facility use, begins soon.

Gulf Shores - Fort Morgan Hotel On The Way

Wednesday, January 18, 2006
Staff Reporter

GULF SHORES -- City officials told developer Rick Fine on Monday to move forward with his plans for a Fort Morgan hotel, but stopped short of telling him that his proposal to build 15 stories was a lock for approval.

Named "The Sanctuary," its early designs call for four floors of parking, a fifth floor for meeting space, a restaurant and gift shops, and 10 upper levels containing a total of 527 hotel rooms.

Half of the 720-square-foot rooms would face the Gulf of Mexico while the rest would look north toward Bon Secour Bay, Fine said during a Monday afternoon City Council work session.

The hotel would sit on 12 acres that are surrounded by the Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge on three sides -- south, east and west -- and near the Martinique subdivision.

Fine said he is in talks with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials about allowing him to build a boardwalk along the western edge of the Wildlife Refuge's Perdue Unit to provide hotel and public access to the beach there.

As part of that, the developer said he'd incorporate an educational display about the refuge and its inhabitants in the hotel lobby as part of the goal to blend the project into its natural setting.

Fine and the project's architect, Dudley Flotte, said their finished designs would be an ode to the works of Frank Lloyd Wright, the renowned architect whose principle of organic architecture called for buildings' forms to match their function as well as their site.

"Frank Lloyd Wright was famous for bringing the outside in and we really want to incorporate that with the design of the building, with the design of the rooms -- lots of glass, open air, the pools, what we want to do with the nature display," Fine said.

"I hope this would be something that Gulf Shores would be proud of, that this would be a real good-looking hotel that people would remember staying in. ... It's an entirely different project than what you'd see on the beach."

Flotte and Fine talked of a 50-foot waterfall that would cascade down the front of the building and rooms that would jut from its facade. But first, they said, they need to know how tall their project can be.

The property, zoned for businesses, carries a 6-story height limit -- three for parking and three for habitation -- but if Fine is granted planned unit development status, The Sanctuary could eclipse that level.

"I'm looking for consensus here as a group that this is going to be all right," Fine told council members. "And if not, I don't know what we're going to do."

Of the 12 acres, 7.5 are wetlands. That means spreading out the number of hotel rooms and meeting space that is needed to make the project financially feasible is impossible, the developer said.

Essentially what Flotte and Fine want to do is take the type of building they would be able to build if the property had no wetlands and stand it on end atop the limited uplands.

Mayor G.W. "Billy" Duke III was the most supportive.

"I'd encourage you to continue on," he told Fine. "To me what makes it unique is where it is in relationship to that refuge -- it's not infringing on anybody else."

Councilman Robert Craft said that if the developers ask only for a variance in building height, and not in regard to other restrictions such as side setbacks, it has a better chance of winning his vote.

"I'm just trying to break it down into how many exceptions you really need," Craft said. "And if it's just height, at least for what I know and not having looked at the site, I would be inclined to support it."

But other elected officials expressed concern about the 15-story proposal.

"My problem is just the amount of height," said Councilman Philip Harris. "I don't have a problem adjusting height if you're going to be putting parking under the building and we're saving that sea of asphalt and we're impacting that site less -- there's some justification in that for me."

Harris, who had an earlier meeting with Fine and Duke about the proposal, said, "I thought we were more in the line of eight stories, which was a little more digestible."

He said he wasn't sure exactly what height would surpass his comfort level.

Councilwoman Carolyn Doughty wondered aloud how many stories the developer would need to make the financing work: "Is it realistic to think that you could do a hotel in three stories?"

"Nope," answered Councilman Steve Jones, who works in the hotel business.

"We very well might come down one story, but is that going to make a difference?" Flotte asked council members. "When you try to come down three stories and four stories, that's where you start having problems."

Councilman Joe Garris said the city needs hotels and meeting space and suggested that Fine and Flotte proceed to tinker with their designs: "Maybe we can help them, within reason, find the height that they really need."

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Lighthouse Schedule to Open In Time for Season

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By Angelle Bergeron

The Lighthouse Condominium in Gulf Shores, Ala., will open in time for the 2006 vacation season, despite Hurricane Ivan in 2004 and one of the busiest hurricane seasons in history in 2005.

"We lost about 90 days from Ivan and a couple weeks from the storms this year, but we aren't going to change our finish date," said Austin Allen, project manager for the contractor, Coastal Builders Inc. of Mobile.

"We want to finish up so everybody has a unit for the summer season."

Most vacationers familiar with the sugar-white sand beaches of Gulf Shores recall the local landmark lighthouse that previously marked the spot on East Beach Boulevard, about three quarters of a mile west of where Highway 59 dead ends at the beach.

"It was not a real lighthouse but a well-known landmark," said Allen of the quirky, 1960s structure built as a lighthouse replica. Coastal demolished the hodgepodge of several buildings that comprised the old hotel in April 2004, preparing the way for the new, 18-story, 251-unit condominium.

Coastal signed the negotiated bid contract with the owner, East Beach Development LLC, a conglomeration of investors for whom the contractor has worked on several previous occasions. "We've done other work for them (under different names), so I would say they are repeat customers," Allen said.

No other condominiums in the area rival the Lighthouse in size, Allen added. The huge, bow-shaped structure would be about 700 ft. long from end to end were it straightened out, Allen said.

"Since it curves, it's about 530 ft."

The condominium contains 18 units on each floor, which is a dramatic departure from the usual two or three units.

"There is really nothing else down here like it. Usually, when you have a 250-unit condo, you have a couple different buildings," Allen said. "A lot of the buildings that are coming up now in the preliminary stages may be 500 units, but that's split between three or four buildings or one tall with a shorter one next to it."

An adjacent, three-story parking garage is located on the north side of the building. The first floor of the main structure is 80 percent parking, with a heated pool and fitness area on one end. The second floor is also primarily parking, except for a common reception area and meeting space.

The south side of the building, the beach side, features two outdoor, zero-entry pools "where you just walk in like a beach," Allen said.

The poured-in-place concrete post tension frame has a good deal of rebar, but very little structural steel.

"It's a standard condo in the fact that it's concrete but the amount of concrete was totally different from what we normally do," Allen said. "The size of the concrete frame is just a lot more massive than we're used to. There are solid concrete walls dividing the units where we typically have some columns."

The abundance of concrete is necessary because of the design, which features a lot of curves and angles, Allen said.

"Initially, we were going to use a tunnel form system, but, because of all the angles, that wouldn't work," he said. "During the design phase, they changed it to using normal post tension."

All of the structural slabs were comprised of a high-early mix to achieve the 3,000-8,000 psi strength required for post-tensioning, but that isn't unusual, said John Windle, project manager for concrete subcontractor Ard Contracting of Birmingham.

"There was a large quantity of walls, which made the schedule requirements a little bit harder because if you have to do twice as many walls in one pour, it takes twice as long to do your vertical," Windle said.

Each floor is approximately 35,000 sq. ft., which required four pours per floor.

"We turned a floor every two weeks," Windle said. The supplier, Reynolds Ready Mix USA, has two plants within a couple miles of the site, so no batch plant was erected on location.

"We used a structural engineer from south Florida who believes in concrete," said Henry Norris of the Pensacola, Fla., architectural firm of Henry Norris and Associates.

The result is an unusually sturdy building that is likely to weather any future tropical storms or hurricanes. "That building is definitely not going anywhere," Allen said.

When Ivan hit the Gulf Coast in September 2004, Coastal had completed seven floors of the concrete frame and had begun to install metal framing for the interior living units.

"We had several levels of form work collapse," Allen said. "Our slab on grade washed away and we lost a lot of material and equipment."

This year, the project suffered delays from several tropical storms, hurricanes Dennis, Katrina and Rita. "We have some damage from Katrina that was all storm surge related, but we are still in the process of assessing the actual impact from the storm," Allen said. "The building is structurally fine, but we had 2 ft. of sand in the first floor (which is parking garage) and it damaged a lot of material that was stored there."

Owners instructed the architect to "design the building to fit the site," Norris said. However, the architect took the opportunity to make a reminiscent nod toward the site's predecessor and namesake.

"We used a lot of glass on the north façade of the building to emulate or help symbolize a lighthouse and some of the roof forms symbolize lighthouse orbs," Norris said. Varying heights on different parts of the building, the bow shape that angles away from the road at either end and the different exterior finish materials all "break up the effect of a box-type design," he added.

Coastal is currently finishing out the interior and will start closing units in May, Allen said. "With a building this size, there are a bunch of loose ends you have to finish up."

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Perdido Key Towers In Orange Beach Pitched By Developer

Thursday, January 12, 2006
Staff Reporter

ORANGE BEACH -- A proposal for Perdido Key that entails three 34-story towers and would net the city two waterfront parcels worth about $4 million apiece received a negative review from the Planning Commission on Tuesday night.

The Planning Commission voted 5-1 to recommend to the City Council that it reject plans for the towers, collectively called Bellissimo. The council will likely make a final decision on the project within the next month unless the developer withdraws the designs before they vote.

Doug Bailey, an engineer working on Bellissimo for developer Pat Martin, said that the plans will likely be brought before the council.

Martin, who designed and built San Roc Cay, a marina featuring retail and restaurants, is also a developer of Bella Luna, which is under construction on Perdido Key.

He told commission members Bellissimo would bring to Orange Beach a trio of towers designed by Miami Beach architect Robert Swedroe on a unique site that touches both the Gulf of Mexico and Old River, which separates Ono Island from Perdido Key.

"Orange Beach could say it has the most beautiful building in America," Martin said, adding that Bellissimo would set a higher standard for resort design and construction in the city. "We'll bring as much benefit to this city as any project you can approve."

The two properties, which together add up to 7.64 acres, would be linked by a pedestrian walkway that would span Alabama 182 and be open for public use, according to the plans. Together the towers would feature 316 condo units and the northern structure would have a floor -- about 12,000 square feet -- dedicated to a publicly accessible spa, Bailey said.

Martin told Planning Commission members that he had met earlier with Mayor Steve Russo and City Councilman Pete Blalock and that they were open to the idea of the city acquiring the two Old River-fronting lots in exchange for rezoning the property from single-family residential and low-density condo uses to a planned unit development.

Such a classification allows the city to approve projects that may not meet certain zoning criteria such as building height or density but are deemed the best use of property. Developers are asked to provide something of "public benefit" as part of the approval process.

Martin said he has been negotiating for the lots, which sit between two other tracts that were pledged to Orange Beach as part of a rezoning for two other 34-story Gulf-front condos towers, called The Verandas, approved for a nearby site in November.

Aside from Bailey and the developer only one person spoke during the public hearing that preceded the vote. Howard Herring, who lives in the Dolphin Key Condominiums, which sit directly west of the where the Gulf-front towers are proposed, said he objected to the plans.

"We'll have a 34-story King-Kong movie-maker in our backyard," Herring said. "We bought the condominium at this place under the assumption that it was low-density housing all the way down 800, 900, 1,000 feet."

Just prior to the vote, Planning Commission Chairman Larry Alexander said that although the designs reflected "very attractive, good-looking" buildings, the plans didn't offer enough to be considered a planned unit development. He also said that the project goes against a set of recently adopted zoning rules that discourage high-rise development on both sides of the beach highway.

"I just took a trip through Panama City over the holidays and goodness, I don't want us to turn into that where we've got buildings right beside the road that tall," Alexander said. "It's absolutely a canyon there."

Australian Company Is Purchasing Toll Bridge Company in Orange Beach

Thursday, January 12, 2006
Staff Reporters

ORANGE BEACH -- The U.S. arm of Australian financial giant Macquarie is negotiating to buy the Baldwin County Bridge Co., a corporation that was designed strictly to own and manage the Foley Beach Express toll bridge.

Meanwhile, Orange Beach, a partner in the bridge over the Intracoastal Waterway, is moving ahead with plans for a bridge over nearby Wolf Bay. The city is creating a bridge authority, choosing an engineering firm and soliciting private investment from firms that include Macquarie.

The sale of the toll bridge company has been in the works and is in "advanced final term negotiations," said Tim James, a former gubernatorial candidate and one of the bridge company's principals. Both James and John McInnis Jr., another principal, will remain with the company, James said, as consultants or directors for up to five years.

James said he could not disclose further terms of the deal, including the sale price.

Macquarie, which recently bought long-term rights to operate the Chicago Skyway toll road for $1.83 billion, also owns stakes in major pay-to-use roads in San Diego and England and large shares in airports in Sydney, Australia; Brussels, Belgium; Rome; and Copenhagen, Denmark.

Locally, Macquarie worked on the 2004 refinancing of the Foley Beach Express toll bridge, which occurred a few months after Orange Beach became a partner.

Though Macquarie officials in New York declined to comment, a Macquarie employee and McInnis met with the Baldwin County Commission on Tuesday in Bay Minette to alert commissioners of the pending sale and put in motion the paperwork needed to transfer the license to operate the bridge to Macquarie.

The original deal that laid the groundwork for the bridge will also be amended to include the Australian firm, according to county officials.

Orange Beach Mayor Steve Russo said the City Council plans to make changes to its financial agreement with the bridge company to reflect the ownership change.

In 2003, the Orange Beach City Council approved a deal with the bridge company in which the city agreed to give the firm $1.2 million annually for 10 years in exchange for a fee for each car that crosses the bridge.

In the agreement, Orange Beach collects royalties for 30 years -- at a rate that increases as traffic rates eclipse million-car increments during the first 10 years and at a fixed rate of 30 cents for each car that uses the bridge for the remaining 20 years.

After 30 years, the city can choose to buy the span for 10 times its annual revenue or continue to collect 30 cents per car for another 30 years.

Some city leaders suggested at the time that, though it would be up to elected officials three decades down the line, growth around the span would likely cause revenues to jump to a level that would make the price too high for a 30-year-old bridge. A large corporation, however, may not want the city to be able to buy the bridge at a preset price.

"I believe that option is valuable to the city," Russo said.

Russo and James said the city's financial position will not change if Macquarie buys the bridge company.

In early December, Russo traveled to New York to talk with Macquarie officials about whether they would be interested in investing in a bridge across Wolf Bay, providing another hurricane evacuation route and linking the rapidly growing beach city to swaths of undeveloped land north of the back bays.

Russo also said that Goldman Sachs, the global investment and securities firm, has expressed interest in partnering on the project.

The mayor said he approached Macquarie because of the pending partnership on the existing toll bridge. Goldman Sachs, he said, responded to solicitation from Tommy Tyrrell, a Mobile project manager who was appointed in August to be an unpaid special assistant to Russo and charged who would try to connect the city with private bridge developers and funding sources.

Since the mid-1990s it was suggested that a Wolf Bay bridge, which would launch from the end of Alabama 161 and land at Sapling Point before connecting to Baldwin County 95, would cost about $40 million.

"We're probably, with fees and everything, looking at the $60 million range," Russo said.

Though details remain uncertain, Orange Beach officials are moving forward with plans for a two-lane toll road, tasking City Attorney Larry Sutley with creating a bridge authority and negotiating with Tallahassee, Fla.- based Figg Bridge Developers Inc.

Figg has planned several bridges along the Gulf Coast, from the Dauphin Island Bridge to the $44.5 million Mid-Bay Bridge that links Niceville, Fla., to Destin, Fla., and the $53.6 million Garcon Point Bridge in Santa Rosa County, Fla. Both cost $2 per trip to traverse and were paid for with revenue-backed bonds. Both are controlled by local bridge authorities.

Russo said Figg was chosen over other firms Tyrrell contacted about the job because it had drawn partial plans for the bridge at the request of dairy magnate George Barber Jr., who along with the David Lawrenz family owns thousands of undeveloped acres where the bridge would land.

Russo said Figg also got the nod because it proposes to charge a lump sum for its work rather than a percentage of the bridge's final cost, which can fluctuate.

Within a few weeks the council will probably be asked to approve some payments to Figg for a study of traffic patterns and potential revenue, Russo said. About then, City Administrator Jeff Moon said, the council will be asked to review and approve legal documents that will create a bridge authority, which will likely be comprised of the mayor and council.

A separate body, "keeps some of the debt off the city's balance sheet by creating a different authority," Russo said, "which is probably the biggest reason to do it that way."

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Gulf Shores Planned Events Still On

Advocate marketing writer
Published: Jan 5, 2006

Most Gulf Shores beaches have been reopened for families looking for relaxation.

Gulf Shores is bouncing back from Hurricane Ivan's September 2004 hit as well as Katrina's Aug. 29 hit, with lots going on.

"We are doing very well, all things considered," said Bebe Gantt, public relations manager for the Alabama Gulf Coast Convention & Visitors Bureau.

"Our thoughts and prayers are with the people in Mississippi and in Louisiana, knowing what we went through and the challenges that come," Gantt said.

According to the CVB, 77 percent of the area's accommodations are open, and more than 90 percent of attractions, public beaches and cruises and charters are open. As for shopping and eating, 84 percent of shopping establishments are open, and 85 percent of restaurants are up and running. Last, 100 percent of the golf courses and marinas in the area are open.

As of now, all planned events in the Alabama Gulf Coast area this fall are still scheduled to take place. "I don't know of anything at this point that has been canceled," Gantt said. "But they may have to be shifted around a little bit. We're still in the assessment mode."

Gantt said Orange Beach fared well, a bit better than Gulf Shores, which had more water damage.

But many hotels are already back up and running, she said.

"Once everything is checked and the power is back on, normalcy is resumed," Gantt said.


Between festivals and concerts, there's always something to do on Alabama's Gulf Coast.

On certain Saturdays, the Gulf Shores Outdoor and Indoor Concert Series presents bands at the Erie Meyer Civic Center in Gulf Shores, according to the Gulf Coast Convention & Visitors Bureau. For example, on Sept. 22, the Sandspur Band will offer bluegrass gospel music with the sounds of the auto-harp, banjo, upright bass, harmonica and guitar along with vocals. On Sept. 29, Top Hat & Jackie will play their renditions of familiar pop tunes. The concerts continue throughout the year.

Oct. 8-22, Fall Bird Banding 2005 will take place at Fort Morgan from daybreak until mid-afternoon. Normally, 2,000 to 4,000 birds of 85-90 species are banded. Birders will also be happy to know that the Alabama Coastal Birdfest will be Oct. 20-23 in Fairhope, Ala., featuring birding field trips highlighting Alabama's Coastal Birding Trail, seminars, exhibits and speakers, the CVB Web site says.

The 34th National Annual Shrimp Festival will be Oct. 13-16 at the main public beach in Gulf Shores. The festival attracts some 200,000 people to view fine arts and crafts from some 200 artists.

The area will end the month with another festival: The Original German Sausage Festival, Oct. 29 at Elberta Town Park, featuring German sausage and other food, music, dancing, children's activities and arts and crafts, the CVB site says.

The Greek Fest will start the month off with music and more Nov. 3-5 at the Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church in Mobile. Also, Nov. 4-6 is the 5th Annual Harbor Days at Foley Heritage Park.

The Alabama Gulf Coast will finish off the year with the 6th Annual "Sandy Claws" Kid's Christmas Party at the Alabama Gulf Coast Zoo in Gulf Shores, as well as Taste of the Tropics Dec. 10, featuring "delectable local cuisine."

For more information, visit or call (800) 745-SAND.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Presales for Plash Island High-Rise

Sunday, January 08, 2006
Real Estate Editor

Plans for Plash Island's first high-rise condominium complex are under way and presales on Five Waters' 300 units will begin Thursday, developers said.

The Head Companies of Point Clear plans to construct two buildings -- from 11 to 20 stories, depending on the final design, said David Head Jr., whose company is one of the owners of the project.

The resort north of Baldwin County 6 will be built on 24 acres at the east side of the island. About 600 acres on or near Plash Island were annexed into Gulf Shores in October 2004.

Five Waters has 2,000 front feet on Bay John. The condo units are priced from $459,000 to $1 million, and REMAX of Orange Beach will market the units.

Plans call for a marina with 144 boat slips. Construction on the project should start in spring, Head said.

"We wanted to build something to offer people who could not afford beachfront," said Head. The developers didn't look at land along the Intracoastal Waterway, he said. Instead the group bought on Plash Island, which offers views of five waters: Mobile Bay, Bon Secour River, Oyster Bay, Weeks Bay and Bay John.

The largest condo complex on Plash Island is the 184-unit Sailboat Bay, which was built in the 1980s. The three-story buildings have parking underneath, and units come with a boat slip.

The units are priced in the high $200,000s, but just more than a year ago the units were selling for $89,000 to $115,000, according to Linda Brokaw of ERA in Foley.

"When things got so crazy on the beach and prices were going up almost weekly, a lot of folks started looking at the bay waters for value," Brokaw said.

"There was a rumor that somebody would buy it out," she said. "But you've got too many people who call it home." The median age for owners of Sailboat Bay units is 65 to 70, she said. "They like the low density, and they know their neighbors."

Realtors predict that Plash Island will eventually be developed into a high-end residential community.

Five Waters' amenities include a pool paradise with waterfalls, waterslides, a dive-in movie theater and adult pool; a putting green; game room; nature trails and a business center.

Plash Island is expected to be developed in much the same way as residential projects on the backwaters in Orange Beach, according to Robert Craft, a Gulf Shores City Councilman. "Orange Beach has proven that there is off-beach demand for condos when marinas are associated with it," he said.

Last April, the city adopted a land-use plan for Plash Island and the surrounding area. It allows developers with 10 or more acres to build up to 25 units per acre on up to 22 livable floors. The goal is to build higher structures, use less land, keep commercial buildings small and keep the number of boat slips to a minimum, city officials said.

Friday, January 06, 2006

Panel Rejects Bon Secour Condos

Friday, January 06, 2006
Staff Reporter

ROBERTSDALE -- Citing concerns about surrounding wetlands and the safety of hundreds of residents, the Baldwin County Planning and Zoning Commission voted unanimously to deny a plan to build a 400-foot condo tower and yacht club at Bon Secour.

Rock Point Beach, a development company headed by Tuscaloosa physician Wesley Spruill, was proposing to build a gated community that would include 400 condos in a 30-story tower and a 412-slip yacht club on Bon Secour Bay between Point Clear and Fort Morgan.

Steven Morin, the engineer with the project, said after the meeting that the company would move forward with a plan to build a 30-story hotel and convention center at the site. That move would take the planning commission out of the approval equation, but the project would have to receive numerous permits from county, state and federal officials, said Wayne Dyess, director of the Baldwin County Planning and Zoning Department.

After about 40 minutes of discussion, the planning commission voted 7-0 against the project at their regular Thursday night meeting at the county's Central Annex. If it had been approved, the plan would have led to the first major development in the rural Bon Secour area.

Commissioners said that although the building would have been built on about a half acre of upland, its construction and runoff would have harmed the surrounding wetlands. Also, the one road to the property is 6 to 9 feet below the base flood elevation, which could have prevented residents from evacuating or rescue officials from responding when an emergency strikes.

"It is not a question of if an emergency occurs, it is when," said Commission Vice Chairman Arthur Dyas.

Morin said the decision sets a dangerous precedent for high-rise construction in coastal areas, which are almost always below base flood elevations

The development, dubbed Bon Soleil Yacht Club, would have been built on 507 acres at the end of Vera Hough Lane, south of Kennedy Road.

The plan called for using 84 acres for the development and deeding the remaining 423 acres, which is mostly wetlands, to the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, according to information the company provided to the county.

The planning commission initially reviewed the proposal at a Nov. 3 meeting and then again at a Dec. 1 meeting. Commissioners postponed their vote at both sessions, asking developers for more specifics on construction, hurricane response plans and potential dredging.

Because of the scope and potential impact of the project, planning commissioners said they wanted the developers to promise in writing that Bon Soleil would of make a minimal impact on the sensitive environment and would resist hurricanes.

According to statements at meetings and information submitted by the company to the county, the first six levels of the condo tower would be for parking, with those levels starting 26 feet above the ground. The first floor of condos would be 96 feet above the ground.

The marina's construction would have been similar to Homeport Marina, next to Lulu's Landing on the Intracoastal Waterway, representatives with the company have said. The concrete-and-wood structure was designed to rise and fall with the tide, company representatives said at previous meetings.

Some dredging would have been required, and the material taken out would have been used to replenish the eroding beach if the necessary permits had been obtained, representatives have said.

The development didn't meet some of the county's design standards for subdivisions, but as a planned residential development -- a designation that allows smaller lot sizes and requires at least 20 percent of the subdivision be set aside as open space -- the planning commission has authority to relax some of the requirements.

Commissioners, however, said they didn't feel they had the authority to grant variances on the deviations in this project.

Some features in the development that didn't meet the county's normal standards include:

The road is 6 to 9 feet below the base flood elevation, more than the normal design standard of 2 feet below the base flood elevation.

Rock Point Beach officials propose having one parking space per unit at the location of the tower and additional parking at the entrance from Kennedy Road. Normal design standards call for two parking places per unit.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Orange Beach Goes Hi-Tech

Everyone now has access to what's happening with the City of Orange Beach. For people like you who are reading this Blog you now will have access to the documents, agenda, etc on-line. The city is going paperlesss.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006
Staff Reporter

ORANGE BEACH -- It used to be that anyone who wanted to study the budget, see how much the city was paying for concrete, read minutes of a past council meeting, or view records surrounding development proposals, had to go to City Hall and ask for the documents, and perhaps pay for copies.

Now those records and just about all of the other documents elected officials view before making decisions and casting votes are available online to anyone who desires to delve into the details of Orange Beach's government.

In a move to save time and trees and eliminate unwieldy stacks of records, the city has gone paperless in all of its documents that relate to City Council meetings. Laptop computers have replaced the files council members and city officials shuffled through at meetings, reporters can download only the documents they need rather than receiving a bulky packet, and residents can do the same without a trip to City Hall.

The information is available from the Web site

The notion to go paperless arose when council members complained last year about the volume of paper they had to keep at their homes -- records and documents associated with all manner of municipal business from development plans to city department reports and bid sheets.

Councilwoman Tracy Holiday said recently that the old way of maintaining paper files was cumbersome and "a waste of paper."

The new system is more efficient and effective, she said. Elected officials can access and view records at any time from any place and constituents with questions can be easily directed to the appropriate documents, Holiday said.

"We should have done it a while ago," she said.

City Administrator Jeff Moon said that he was able to review and approve the items proposed for a recent council meeting from the Sportsplex -- which is a wireless Internet hot spot -- while attending the SEC women's soccer tournament.

"If I'm traveling on a business trip, I can log on from anywhere in the world and create an agenda item or do my approval process or look and see what's on the agenda," Moon said.

Using two private Web sites to create the agendas and keep track of supporting documentation, the process of putting together a council meeting has been streamlined, with much of the work being done at the click of a mouse, Moon said.

Also, he said, the time and effort involved in putting together packets full of paperwork for council members, department heads and reporters before each week's meetings is eliminated.

"It was a tremendous amount of staff time put into creating them," he said. "Likewise, there was a tremendous amount of cost being put into creating it, from the copying costs to the staff time."

Though it wasn't the impetus for going online, Moon said the biggest boon of the new system is that a tremendous amount of information now becomes easily accessible to the public.

"The public has access to the same documents the council does, whether it be a draft ordinance, a draft resolution, or a memo or any of the supporting documentation, whereas before the public didn't have access to that unless they came in and specifically requested it," Moon said. "They now have access on the Web to everything that staff and council does, so that, at the end of the day, is probably one of the most important things."

Only documents that otherwise would not be public, such as those pertaining to personnel or legal matters, are not available on the public Web site, Moon said.

As early as Friday the agenda for Tuesday's meeting was posted at the Web site. Though agendas were always published on the city's Web site, residents can now glean more information about what will go on than the short descriptions traditionally available.

According to the agenda the council was set to vote on a resolution to appoint members to the Construction Board of Adjustment and Appeals. By clicking on an icon next to that item, a copy of the proposed resolution could be downloaded to see that the council was specifically set to vote to appoint Danny Duke and Larry Alexander to four-year posts on the board.

Or say someone wanted to know who won a contract to supply the city with sod for the upcoming year and how elected officials made that decision at their Dec. 20 meeting.

According to the online minutes and of that meeting, Holiday made a motion, which Councilman Jeff Silvers seconded, to give the contract to Cleverdon Farms of Foley. That motion passed, according to the minutes, and by downloading the supporting documentation from the agenda, it could be learned that the Cleverdon gave better prices on three varieties of grass than did competitors Craft Farms and Woerner Turf.
To set up this system, Orange Beach paid $26,000 for the needed software and it will cost $3,000 annually to pay MCCi, the Tallahassee, Fla., company that developed the program, to host the Web site that stores the information online, Moon said. MCCi is a subsidiary of the Municipal Code Corp., which catalogs the city's ordinances online and on paper.

In addition, the city also had to buy eight $900 laptop computers for council members -- the mayor uses his personal computer -- and city officials to use during the meetings, Moon said. And a ceiling-mounted projector and wall screen, which are used to display the agenda and documents in the council chambers, was also purchased and installed for about $7,500, but Moon said that was going to be bought to replace an old projector regardless of the switch to an online system.

"When you look at the cost of the copies and the paper and the staff time creating them, I think over a couple of years it will more than pay for itself on the financial end," Moon said. "You can't really put a dollar value on the amount of access the public has to information more easily now, but on just the pure dollars and cents, I think it will more than pay for itself in the long haul."

And if the laptops malfunction, servers crash or Internet access is interrupted?

"You always run that risk if something happens but we have the ability, if needed, to create a paper packet," Moon said.


Orange Beach City Council packets:

Monday, January 02, 2006

City Reshuffles Re-Entry Zones

Monday, January 02, 2006
Staff Reporter

ORANGE BEACH -- A new hurricane re-entry map that municipal leaders hope will help residents of less-damaged areas return home more quickly after storms is likely to be approved by the City Council on Tuesday .

In some cases, zones were split up -- such as the one that runs along the beach -- and others were added to reflect newly developed or annexed tracts. The new map includes 15 zones, up from eight.

"I think it will alleviate a lot of the problems we had last time," Mayor Steve Russo said. "I think we have each area defined enough so we can be very selective about what zones come back."

Take, for example, the Beaver Creek subdivision, which sits on the south side of Canal Road just east of the city's border. That newer subdivision, built after the last re-entry maps were drawn, is served by a power substation situated in the Craft Farms area of Gulf Shores north of the Intracoastal Waterway and had electricity restored very soon after Hurricane Ivan struck in September 2004, City Administrator Jeff Moon said at the council's work session last week.

But Moon said city officials had no way to let Beaver Creek residents back in without also permitting those who lived in the Oak Ridge area behind City Hall, a hard-hit area of mostly trailers, to return because they were in the same re-entry zone.

"They may be able to have power before anyone else so that's why we wanted to give them their very own zone," Moon said. "We tried to take the lessons we learned after Ivan about the re-entry and the problems we had coming up with a common-sense, practical approach to fixing the problems."

In the case of Beaver Creak and Oak Ridge, formerly of Zone 12, the solution called for a split. The area is now comprised of:

Zone 14, which includes Oak Ridge and City Hall.

Zone 15, which stretches along the south side of Canal Road from Alabama 161 to the Foley Beach Express.

Zone 16, which is made up mostly of Beaver Creek and undeveloped land at the city's edge.

Also getting split is the former Zone 9, which runs along Alabama 182 between the Gulf State Park and Perdido Pass. Under the new map, that area will become Zone 10, which is the north side of the beach highway between the state park and Alabama 161 and includes both of the city's supermarkets as well as the Village of Tannin and Windward Lakes subdivisions. The Gulf-front and property north of Alabama 182 that sits west of Alabama 161 is Zone 11 on the new map.

After Ivan, Moon said, "we probably could have gotten the north side of the road back in sooner rather than later, but they were all part of the same zone so we didn't have a way to distinguish."

According to the new map, the former Zone 14, which runs along Canal Road, will also be halved at Wilson Boulevard. Property west of Wilson Boulevard will become Zone 18 and that to the east will be Zone 19.

"We decided to do that," Moon said, "because we thought it was a good dividing point because of damage patterns -- 19 being a little more exposed than 18."

Other zones south of the Intracoastal Waterway retained their boundaries, but their numbers have changed. According to the new map:

Perdido Key becomes Zone 12.

Ono Island is Zone 24.

The north half of Bear Point, defined as property east of Sampson Avenue and north of Canal Road, is Zone 20.

Zone 21 is the southern half of Bear Point, which is also bound by Sampson Avenue and Canal Road.

The neighborhoods east of Alabama 161, including those along Terry Cove Drive, Marina Road, and Cotton Bayou Drive, are in Zone 13.

The north side of Canal Road between Alabama 161 and the western city limit.

"We're reasonably confident we've got everyone where they need to be," Moon said. "We've reviewed this at the staff level, with the police chief, fire chief, public works director, everyone sitting down talking about access points and where we can turn people around."

In addition to these changes, Orange Beach is adding two zones north of the Intracoastal Waterway, where property has come into the city over the past six years.

Property along the Foley Beach Express toll bridge, including the Riverwalk Orange Beach development, becomes Zone 22. Sapling Point and the undeveloped acreage along Ingraham's Bayou and in the Josephine area brought into the city by the David Lawrenz family becomes Zone 23.

The evacuation plan covers not only hurricanes, but disasters such as chemical spills, which could require tracts along the Intracoastal Waterway -- an industrial shipping channel -- to evacuate, Moon said.

Besides the added zones, the reshuffling of numbers was necessary because Gulf Shores, which formerly used numbers 1 through 8, needed to create an additional zone, Moon said. So Zone 9 was dropped by Orange Beach so it could be assigned to an area in Gulf Shores.

The revised Gulf Shores re-entry map was not available.

Once the Orange Beach City Council adopts the new map, re-entry zone stickers will be ordered and distributed to residents. Then, Moon said, city officials will draft new re-entry policies, particularly as they pertain to businesses, contractors and property management companies.

City Attorney Larry Sutley recommended that a provision requiring businesses that handle hazardous materials, such as gasoline, to have an employee close by after a disaster to tend to any problems. In the hours after Ivan, a leak at Sportsman Marina caused about 1,000 gallons of diesel fuel to spill into Terry Cove, Sutley said.

Russo said in an interview that he would like to see such a provision. He said that after Ivan a similar mishap would have occurred at Orange Beach Marina, where boats filled with gas and oil were sinking, had a marina employee not been close by and able to correct the problem.

Many Oppose Pilot Town Marina Project

Sunday, January 01, 2006
Staff Reporter

GULF SHORES -- A large-scale marina development proposal for a Fort Morgan tract that includes the site of the 19th century Pilot Town settlement received nearly uniform opposition from government regulators, conservation groups and the public this fall when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers sought opinions on the designs.

Chicago-based PRM Realty Group Inc. has asked the corps for permission to dredge 55 acres of water bottoms to establish a 21-acre marina basin capable of docking 290 boats and create an 8,831-foot-long channel to allow large vessels to traverse shoal-like St. Andrews Bay and reach the Intracoastal Waterway.

Using the dredged sand, the company proposes building a 38-acre beach that would stretch nearly 2,400 feet along Navy Cove and serve a medium- and high-density residential development, according to plans filed with the corps.

The designs also show that PRM seeks to fill about 2 acres of wetlands, surround a small grassy island with riprap, solidify the marina's western edge with 810 feet of bulkhead, and protect the deepened basin with a wave fence nearly 1,300 feet long.

That's all a bad idea that could ruin the area's ecology and unique history, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Alabama Department of Environmental Management, other groups and agencies and more than 40 individuals, according to written responses to the proposal, which were acquired from the corps by the Mobile Register via the Freedom of Information Act.

"The proposed action will impact approximately 93 acres of coastal habitat currently used by fish and wildlife species for foraging, reproduction and as a nursery area," wrote Larry Goldman, a Daphne-based Fish & Wildlife Service supervisor, in his agency's comments. "The disruption of this ecosystem by a commercial development of this magnitude could cause the permanent loss of habitat that sustains commercial and recreational fisheries of significant economic value."

The Fish & Wildlife Service runs the Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge, part of which -- 1,990 acres of piney woods, saltwater marsh and tidal creeks called the Little Point Clear Unit -- sits across St. Andrews Bay from the proposed development site.

George Crozier, director of the Dauphin Island Sea Lab, began his written response: "I don't think that I have seen a proposal for a residential development that I thought would have a greater impact on natural features than this one. This action will virtually obliterate the ecological services of Little Point Clear for all time."

Jennifer Urquhart, senior vice president of marketing for PRM, said last week that the project manager working on the Fort Morgan development is no longer with the company and that all of PRM's plans along the Gulf Coast are under re-evaluation following Hurricane Katrina. At the moment, PRM is looking for a new project manager for the area, tying up loose ends on the property's title and mulling the responses generated by the corps request for public comment, she said.

"It's not dead in the water," Urquhart said, "but we're not moving aggressively on it."
Urquhart, based in Washington state, said PRM is considering several projects in the Mobile area and would "be sensitive to ecological and cultural issues" at the Fort Morgan property.

In March, PRM paid Mobile lawyer Mike Langan and a group of his family members $18.85 million for 148 acres, according to Baldwin County Probate Court records. The entirety of the tract is within the wildlife refuge's congressionally outlined acquisition boundary, which means that the undeveloped Pilot Town property could become part of the sanctuary if it were purchased by the government or donated by a preservation group.

In 2001, the Fish & Wildlife Service offered $2 million to the Langans, who three years earlier outbid local preservationists in an auction of the land by paying $620,000.

Formerly a sort of communal settlement for mariners who guided seagoing vessels around the sandbars of Mobile Bay to port, Pilot Town was destroyed in a 1906 hurricane.

Today, traces of the town are plainly visible by boat. What appears to have been a red-brick cistern hugs the Navy Cove shoreline, emblazoned in fresh white lettering with "Pilot Town," and a corner of what was likely a fireplace juts from the still water just offshore.

The property, like the refuge land nearby, plays host to, most notably, marsh birds such as king rails and seaside sparrows as well as osprey, which roost in dead trees, according to Wildlife Service officials. The shallow bay and marshy inlets shelter a range of aquatic species from infant fish to shrimp and crabs.

The corps records indicate that PRM faces an uphill battle to see its marina plans materialize.

Considerable opposition comes from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which wrote that the project would result in "substantial and unacceptable" impacts to the bay and violate the Clean Water Act. The EPA contends that using the dredged sand to fill an aquatic environment when other disposal options are available breaches federal rules.

State agencies and the public also raised questions about allowing the Chicago-based company to use the water bottoms, which are state lands, to create a private beach.

On Oct. 24, after reviewing the public comments, corps project manager Munther Sahawneh wrote PRM and its local engineers, Volkert & Associates, asking them to address the concerns, particularly those of the federal agencies, before the corps could decide whether to allow the requested dredging, filling and bulkheading.

"The corps and commenting agencies do not feel that you have given serious consideration to less environmentally damaging on-site alternatives," Sahawneh wrote.

On Nov. 16, in the most recent correspondence released by the corps, Volkert's Adrienne Paige Collins e-mailed Sahawneh asking for more time to examine "alternative marina locations" and resolve "archaeological issues on the site" with the corps and the Alabama Historical Commission.

Nearly all of the 45 individuals who wrote to the corps stressed opposition to the project in their letters. None indicated that he or she favored the marina designs, though some -- including U.S. Rep. Jo Bonner, R-Mobile; state Sen. Bradley Byrne, R-Montrose; and state Rep. Steve McMillan, R-Gulf Shores -- merely requested a public hearing on the matter.

Marilyn Phipps, a corps spokeswoman, said last week that there's been no decision regarding a public hearing.

PRM's Urquhart said that no aspect of the project would move forward without the company, which has developed high-end real estate in Hawaii, Monaco and the Virgin Islands, meeting with local stakeholders. "You can count on us to listen and to go on with caution," she said.