Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Gulf Shores To Aggresively Annex Property

Wednesday, February 22, 2006
Staff Reporter

GULF SHORES -- Mayor G.W. "Billy" Duke III told City Council members that he would seek a referendum in which residents of outlying areas within the city's police and planning jurisdictions would vote on whether to become part of the municipality.

Though the city's northern boundary with Foley is defined by a court order and its border with Orange Beach to the northeast and east was settled upon by the cities' prior administrations, not all land within those lines is officially part of Gulf Shores.

Residents of unincorporated areas in the city's jurisdiction would all vote in a single referendum and a majority vote would bring everyone into Gulf Shores, Duke said Monday.

No date for the referendum has been set and there are still questions about how it would be conducted, but those voting would be residents living within the boundary who have not yet brought their property into the city limits.

Those residents live in areas:

East of the Peninsula Golf Course on Fort Morgan Road, including areas north of the highway along the southern shores of Oyster Bay.

Up the east bank of the Bon Secour River.

South of Boggy Branch until it meets Alabama 59.

South of the portion of Baldwin County 10, which is also known as Keller Road, that lies east of Alabama 59.

West of Roscoe Road.
In October 2004, Bon Secour area residents -- many of whom live in the areas Duke proposes to target with the referendum -- defeated by a nearly 2-to-1 margin a proposal to create a county zoning district there. The day before that vote, several area land owners annexed their property -- more than 600 acres total -- into Gulf Shores.

Numerous residents have since annexed into the city one at a time, creating irregular and jagged city limits that have confused municipal services from the police and fire departments to garbage collection and planning, officials said.

"There's several reasons, one of the foremost is it's extremely difficult for police and fire and 911 and planning," Duke said. "If they have a call it's, well, is it in or is it out?'"

As an example of the confusion the jagged boundaries create for his department, Fire Chief Tim Blakemore told the council about calls from the Gulf Breeze RV Resort on Baldwin County 6.

"There's about 33 lots in that RV park that are in the city limits," Blakemore said. "If 911 gets a call they have no idea which lot it is so we wind up having to go, and most of the calls we're making up there are out of the city limits but we don't know until we get on the scene."

Said Police Chief Arthur Bourne: "It's been a problem, just taking one in and going down the road and taking another in. We need to clean it up."

Duke also said that bringing all of the properties into the city would simplify planning efforts and untangle zoning rules in the areas.

"If you just square it all off, you're able to plan, you're able to do zoning that you're not currently able to do," the mayor said. "You've got pockets of county zoning, you've got pockets of city zoning, you've got pockets of no zoning, so it's just a big hodgepodge out there so you can't really plan anything."

Initially, Duke said, city officials will have to approach land owners in the area and get a certain number of them to agree to a referendum, probably through a petition. At about the same time, City Hall will have to request special legislation from state lawmakers to establish the referendum, Duke said. Then, the question would be put to those living in the subject areas.

A simple majority would bring everyone into Gulf Shores, he said.

"It's going to take some legislative action to accomplish what we're trying to accomplish because it's a little bit outside of the box," Duke said. "It's not going to be as easy as we thought it was going to be, but we're going to try to do it."

If the referendum were to fail, Gulf Shores would continue as it does today, letting those with property contiguous to the city limits request annexation one at a time, Councilwoman Carolyn Doughty said. An attempt at annexing everyone in one swoop provides benefits that accepting one parcel at a time does not, Doughty said.

"I think it gives us an opportunity to sit and explain the benefits and what it would cost and be able to have some public hearings and give people the actual facts," she said.

In terms of cost, residents who previously lived in the city's planning or police jurisdictions would see their municipal taxes -- including levies on property, sales and use as well as business licenses -- doubled upon annexation.

For example, while someone in the city's jurisdiction pays only 2.5 mills of property tax, Gulf Shores residents, who have full access to municipal services -- pay 5 mills to City Hall.

A mill equals $1 in taxes for every $1,000 of assessed property value.

For example, if a house in the unincorporated Bon Secour area is appraised by the county for $100,000 and assessed at 10 percent of that, or $10,000. An increase of 2.5 mills would mean, for the owner of that home, a $25 increase in each year's tax bill if the property was annexed into Gulf Shores.

Orange Beach Council Approves The Water Club

Wednesday, February 22, 2006
Staff Reporter

ORANGE BEACH -- In a 4-2 vote Tuesday night, the City Council approved a high-rise hotel proposal by developer Ken Wall and his partner, Jim Brown, who was indicted last month on state charges that he bribed then-Mayor Steve Russo.

Called The Water Club, the proposal features two 32-story, Gulf-front towers containing a total of 494 units. Each unit will be managed like hotel rooms but owned individually like condominiums, according to the plans.

Brown is accused by state prosecutors of giving Russo money to buy a BMW automobile and giving him a one-third interest in a multimillion real estate deal in Gulf Shores.

Russo, who resigned last month after being indicted by the state on charges of soliciting and accepting the bribes, also faces federal charges for allegedly hiding $33,000 in campaign funds and spending it on vacations and luxury goods as well as illegally billing the city for more than $2,000 in personal expenses that he incurred on an official trip to New York.

Orange Beach City Attorney Larry Sutley, who was granted an indefinite leave of absence earlier this month, is also charged by the state, which alleges that he received another one-third share of the Gulf Shores real estate venture and helped facilitate the mayor's involvement.

Among the indictments and affidavits unsealed by prosecutors, The Water Club is not mentioned. Brown did not attend Tuesday evening's vote or a public hearing held earlier this month.

Wall, who declined to comment after the vote, said he wasn't sure when construction would begin and that he had yet to sell The Water Club to investors.

Voting for the project were Mayor Pete Blalock and council members Tracy Holiday, Larry Alexander and Jeff Silvers, citing a need for the meeting space and waterfront restaurants the designs promise.

Council members Joni Blalock, who is the mayor's sister-in-law, and Ed Carroll voted no, pointing to the large number of residents they said had urged them to do so.

The approval is contingent on a city-hired appraiser's assessment of 4.35 acres across Alabama 182 from the project site that the developers are giving to the city as their "public benefit" offering, which is required when requesting planned unit development zoning.

Such developments allow the city to approve projects that may not meet certain zoning requirements -- in The Water Club's case it was building height -- but are deemed the best use of property.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Presales - Developers Holding Back

The market has finally responded with presales in secondary locations just not happening fast enough. Several developers have put on the brakes and moved to a wait and see mode.
Mike Mitchum

Sunday, February 19, 2006
Real Estate Editor
In a resort market, slow presales can make or break a project.

Add to that a couple of major hurricanes, rising material costs and a tight labor market, and property sales at the Gulf just about stop, according to developers and Realtors.

Condominium units that a year ago sold in a few days at the full price of $800,000, with two back-up buyers, are now just a handful of the 2,615 units on the market. Developers once eager to start selling preconstruction units are now waiting for demand to meet the supply before releasing presales.

"Before we have more preconstruction units, we need to see a lot of people absorbing what we have on the market," said Chuck Norwood of REMAX of Gulf Shores. "And I can assure you that not all of the preconstruction units were bought by end-users. Many were bought by speculators who will put those into the inventory as well."

A total of 1,244 new condominium units are scheduled to open in 2006 in Orange Beach and Gulf Shores, according to the Alabama Gulf Coast Convention & Visitors Bureau. There are 11,852 existing condo units at the Gulf.

At least two developers have put condo projects on hold due to lagging presales, and Realtors expect others to follow.

When presales of the 97-unit Villas at Homeport next to Lulu's Landing on the Intracoastal Waterway in Gulf Shores hit the market, there was a waiting list for the $650,000 to $800,000 units.

"Unfortunately, we issued hard contracts at the end of June, and when Katrina hit, it shut us down," said Hugh Headrick of REMAX of Orange Beach. "Because of Katrina, we weren't able to convert contracts fast enough and the costs of construction went up significantly."

The 60-slip Homeport Marina is open and Lulu's restaurants has plans to expand, he said.

Waterdance developers have stopped their plans to build 770 units on the Intracoastal Waterway, citing disappointing presales of the first phase of 295 units, according to Peter Pappas of Pappas Properties in Charlotte, N.C., who designed the project. The land owner, Jim Mattei, a native Mobilian, is said to be reevaluating the project.

"We have a lot of investors who have preconstruction units that they haven't been able to sell," Headrick said. "Once the buyers come back, we'll see the existing units gobbled up."

The market may never be as hot as it was before Hurricane Ivan hit in September 2004, according to developer Rick Phillips, a partner in Mandalay Beach, a planned 500-unit project in Orange Beach. "But the buyers are still out there, the demographics are still there and people are still looking for places," he said. "They just have to get over the storm scarring."

The hurricane fallout has widened for developers left scrambling to replace subcontractors who left for higher-paying hurricane repair jobs in Mississippi and New Orleans, builders said.

Material costs and the shortage of subcontractors, is "killing everybody," said Rick Skelton, one of the developers of Bon Secour Village, a mixed-use community on the Intracoastal Waterway in Gulf Shores. Any material prices that weren't locked in are going up, he said.

Another hit for developers' budgets is the new impact, or development, fee adopted by the city of Gulf Shores last August. It requires that developers pay an upfront fee of $5,000 per condo unit to help offset city expenses. The new fee is separate from the cost of a building permit.

"The city has been great to work with, but this was a big surprise to us, and an unpleasant one," said Skelton, whose project has 103 condo units in its first phase. "The home buyers are the ones who will end up suffering."

The development fee will help the city provide utilities, wider streets and other infrastructure, according to Steve Foote, city planner for Gulf Shores.

While Orange Beach does not have an impact fee, some Florida cities have adopted them, developers said. For example, Panama City Beach's commissioners are considering imposing a $16,000-per-unit fee, according to city officials there.

The added fees and construction costs aren't causing many developers to bail out along the Waterway, according to Skelton. But, "some are saying they have got to pull back and watch the market, or do some redesign and watch our pricing."

Some of the presale buyers from projects put on hold have been looking at units at The Wharf, according Beason Wilkes, director of development for the AIG Baker project that will put retail, entertainment and 741 condo units on the Intracoastal Waterway.

"Our sales are accelerating," Wilkes said. The Wharf's first two buildings are sold. There are several units remaining in a third, 234-unit building, where "we had a little fall out from Mississippi and Louisiana buyers," he said.

With so much inventory on the market, buyers are aggressively negotiating for units, agents said.

Many developers are offering incentives to Realtors to sell their preconstruction units, including giving top sellers a sport utility vehicle or sports car. Some companies are paying agents $10,000 of their sales commission at the time of purchase, rather than ask them to wait the two or three years until a project is built and sales are finalized.

A year ago there were 1,200 to 1,500 units on the market versus 2,615 today, according to Realtors.

"We've got to have some absorption of inventory," Norwood of REMAX said

And while he added that he's not "doom and gloom," he likened today's buyers to chiefs and Indians.

"Unfortunately, we've been building for all the chiefs," Norwood said. "How many Indians can afford $800,000 to $2 million condos? We may be missing our mark a bit."

Orange Beach x-Mayor Russo in Land Flip Investigated by FBI

Flips are what makes investing profitable. However, when a mayor makes this kind of profit with a business associate of one of his developer/partners I think it looks like a duck. Here's the story.

Sunday, February 19, 2006
Staff Reporter

Indicted former Orange Beach mayor made $400,000 in one-day deal with help of developer, according to agent's report.

New claims that former Orange Beach Mayor Steve Russo, aided by developer Jim Brown, reaped a profit of $400,000 in a one-day real estate deal are made by an FBI agent in documents recently unsealed in the U.S. government's corruption case against Russo.

The two near-identical affidavits, which Special Agent Adam Scholtz used to obtain search warrants for Russo's condo, safety deposit box and a self-storage unit, also add detail to prosecutors' previous allegations.

Russo's properties were searched by investigators on the same January day that state and federal indictments against the then-mayor were unsealed, according to court records.

Russo is charged in a seven-count federal indictment, to which he's pleaded innocent. It accuses him of not reporting about $33,000 in campaign funds and using the money to pay for vacations, clothing and other goods as well as illegally billing Orange Beach for more than $2,000 in personal expenses, such as limousine services and theater tickets, incurred while on an official trip to New York.

Also, in two state indictments Russo is charged with a host of misdemeanors and felonies. One accuses him of hiding and then spending the election money while the other charges Russo with soliciting and accepting bribes from Brown as well as breaking state ethics laws.

The charges were made against a backdrop of Orange Beach's rapid development into a ritzy resort town where land values have skyrocketed, public amenities are some of the best in the state, and millions of dollars hang on the decisions of the city's government.

Russo, who was first elected in 1998 and oversaw much of the city's transformation, served in Orange Beach's top post until resigning last month after being indicted.

Also indicted by the state are:

Brown, who is accused of bribing the mayor and City Attorney Larry Sutley.

Sutley, who is charged with accepting the developer's bribe. Earlier this month Sutley, who authored the legal documents that founded Orange Beach in 1984 and has been city attorney since 1998, was granted an indefinite leave of absence by the City Council.

Former City Councilman Joe McCarron, who prosecutors say traded his votes on the council and the Planning Commission to developers in exchange for their business with his insurance agency. McCarron, who was appointed to the council in 1998, was defeated by Ed Carroll in the August 2004 election.

All four men charged by the state are scheduled to be arraigned Friday morning in Baldwin County Circuit Court in Bay Minette. Russo's federal trial is slated to begin in April.

In the six-page affidavits Scholtz outlined his reasons for wanting to search Russo's property for real estate records and other documents. Among them is the claim that Russo pocketed $400,000 by "flipping" a piece of waterfront property in Orange Beach to one of Brown's business partners.

Russo bought the property, just over an acre on the southern shore of where Wolf Bay narrows into Portage Creek, from a Daphne woman named Claudia Bankester on Aug. 15 for $1.2 million, according to the affidavit.

"A review of bank records of Russo, as well as other evidence, does not reflect any apparent independent financial ability for Russo to purchase this property," Scholtz wrote.

That same day Russo sold the property to Deck Investments LLC, a Louisiana corporation registered to investor Don Chunn, for $1.6 million.

Through a corporation called Deck, Wall & Brown LLC, Brown and Chunn are business partners, the affidavit says. A search of online Alabama secretary of state records did not turn up such a company, but corporate filings do indicate that Brown and Chunn share interest in another corporation, Island Resources LLC.

That company, according to the state records, is registered to both men as well as a corporation held by local developer Ken Wall and a Mobile couple operating under CCM LLC.

Russo deferred comment to his attorney, Richard Horne, who could not be reached.

Birmingham-based David Luker, who is Brown's attorney according to Circuit Court records, did not return calls Friday or Saturday requesting comment. Neither Wall, who has a pending proposal to build a high-rise hotel in Orange Beach with Brown, nor Chunn could be reached Friday or Saturday either.

"Evidence developed during the investigation is that the arrangement to have Russo benefit from this land 'flip' of the Bankester property was precipitated by Jim Brown," Scholtz wrote in the affidavit.

Deeds reflecting Russo's purchase and sale of the land are filed in Baldwin County Probate Court, but there is no mortgage in his name to indicate that he borrowed any money to make the transaction happen.

It is common in south Baldwin County's fast-paced real estate market for investors to buy and then quickly resell, or flip, property before closing on it. In such scenarios, simultaneous closings are held in which the party ending up with the property pays the original owner and anyone who held rights to it in between. Those who held the rights to the property in between usually don't have to take out mortgages since they never actually owned the real estate.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Fort Morgan Marina Decision Postponed

Wednesday, February 15, 2006
Staff Reporter

GULF SHORES -- With questions over whether submerged land can be counted in developers' plans, and how big a condo tower will be allowed along Fort Morgan Road, the City Council decided Monday to delay a vote on a marina and condo proposal for the peninsula the until its next meeting.

Proposed by Joe Raley Builders, the two-part project would include a 15-story, 204-unit condominium tower called Waters Edge and a full-service marina with 150 wet slips, dry storage for 130 boats, a dock store and a restaurant. The designs are proposed for a tract near the end of the peninsula on Mobile Bay including the old Fort Morgan Marina property.

"We believe the project will not only enhance the city of Gulf Shores but it will dramatically enhance the lifestyle of the people on the Fort Morgan peninsula by way of the amenities that the condominium and the Gulf Shores Marina will offer," said Rebecca Wilson, a spokeswoman for Joe Raley Builders.

A 3-2 vote to put the decision on hold until Feb. 27 followed a 1½-hour-long public hearing. Council members Carolyn Doughty, Philip Harris and Robert Craft voted to postpone a conclusion while Mayor G.W. "Billy" Duke III and Councilman Steve Jones voted against the delay. Councilman Joe Garris Jr. was absent but wouldn't have been able to vote on the proposal anyway because he works with the developers, Duke said.

"It seems like somebody, or maybe the whole body, is trying to stop this project and I just don't think it's fair," Craig Johnson, a Raley employee, told council members.

The developers ask that eight lots along the bay carrying various zoning classifications, including those for businesses and single-family homes, be rezoned as a planned unit development, which would allow them a wider variety of land uses and increased flexibility in design.

Under city rules, landowners must have at least 10 acres to qualify for planned unit development status. While Joe Raley Builders contends that the eight parcels total 10.2 acres, city officials argue that since some of that acreage is under water, it should not count in the land calculations.

"Until you submitted the survey I never dreamed we would be trying to count land under water," Harris said.

Johnson argued that because waterfront land had been cleared away by the marina's previous owners to make room for the existing boat slips and a bulkhead, and never given up to the state -- which generally controls submerged land -- the developers are entitled to count that area as part of their parcel.

For instance, besides qualifying for planned unit development zoning, they would get credit for the submerged land when calculating how many condo units they can build.

Johnson said that until the council changed it recently, the marina property had carried business zoning -- which in other parts of the city would allow construction of up to 42 dwelling units per acre -- and his firm was actually asking for less than half the density it's entitled to at 20 units per acre.

But Doughty said Baldwin County's business zoning, which the marina carried until Raley annexed the property into the city, wouldn't allow near the density they proposed.

"Well that's why we brought it in," Johnson responded.

During the public comment portion of the hearing, Chuck Browdy, a Fort Morgan resident and former Baldwin County commissioner for the area, asked council members to reject the proposal because tax records disputed the developers' claim that they owned 10 acres. Browdy, like two others and some city officials, said that allowing these property owners to count underwater land in their area calculations could set a precedent that would make it hard to deny other waterfront landowners the same right.

"They don't own it and they don't have the rights to use it," Browdy said.

Rick Long, a local pastor who lives in Orange Beach but said he owns land in Gulf Shores, criticized Browdy for speaking against the plans without being a city resident. Long, a member of the Orange Beach Planning Commission, then told the Gulf Shores City Council that they had no basis to reject Raley's plans.

"Everything's been done to question it and that's not your job and it's not your right," Long said. "It seems like you're looking for any excuse or any opportunity" to turn it down.

Overall three spoke in favor of the project, saying it would bring shopping and dining options to a secluded part of the peninsula, and three asked the council to either delay the decision or reject the plans due to environmental or legal concerns.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Indicted Developer Seeks High-Rise Approval in Orange Beach

Monday, February 06, 2006
Staff Reporter

ORANGE BEACH -- Developer Jim Brown, who was indicted last month on state charges that he bribed City Attorney Larry Sutley and recently resigned Orange Beach Mayor Steve Russo, continues to pursue a high-rise Gulf-front hotel in the western part of the resort city.

The project, called The Water Club and pitched by its developers as potentially the largest hotel on Baldwin County's beaches, would feature twin 32-story towers with 494 units, 18,000 square feet of retail and restaurant space and 14,000 square feet for conferences, according to plans filed with the city.

In order to build The Water Club, Brown and partner Ken Wall, whose names appear together as the applicants for a rezoning, ask that 6.75 surfside acres be reclassified from a category for single-family homes, to a planned unit development. Such developments can be approved by the city even if they don't meet certain zoning criteria but are deemed the best use of property.

The City Council has scheduled a public hearing on the matter for 4:30 p.m. Tuesday and could vote on it during its 5 p.m. meeting.

Under city rules, developers who ask for planned unit development classification must provide a public benefit and also justify their deviation from typical zoning. In The Water Club's case, the 32-story towers exceed a 26-story height limit, some side-yard setbacks are five feet too narrow and the developers seek to transfer units they would be able to build on 4.35 acres they own across the street to the beach-side hotel, according to plans filed with the city.

According to the plans, the developers would give Orange Beach the 4.35 acres which sit just east of the Alabama Gulf Coast Convention and Visitors Bureau Welcome Center and south of Gulf State Park.

In the rezoning application, the developers say that the tract, which is partially submerged year-round, is worth $6.3 million. Owners of the tract are listed as Romar Beach Acquisitions LLC, which, according to corporate filings, is registered to Brown, Bay Minette lawyer Dan Blackburn, Tennessee investor Phil Martin and Romar Villas LLC, which is a corporation shared by Wall and former Gulf Shores City Councilman Greg Kennedy.

Though each of the 494 units will have separate ownership, as condominiums do, they will be rented by the day and managed by a national hotelier, according to the plans. Most condos in Gulf Shores and Orange Beach are let on a weekly basis.

Citing data from the Convention and Visitors Bureau, the developers wrote in their application that tourists are making more and shorter trips to the beach than the traditional week-long summer stay.

"The current trend in the million-plus market are restricted rentals, or no rentals at all," the developers wrote. "The trend towards rental restrictions are contrary to the current market trends."

The Water Club would solve the problem with nightly rental rates in addition to bringing sorely needed conference space, they wrote.

On Dec. 15, the Planning Commission voted 4-2-1 to recommend that the council approve the plans, though without five affirmative votes, the tally does not officially endorse The Water Club. Commission members Robert Stuart and Joni Blalock, who is also a City Council member, voted against the plans while Jeff Moon, who is the city administrator, abstained.

According to the minutes of that meeting, which are posted on the city's Web site, four spoke against the project while one praised it.

Since then, however, prosecutors have alleged that Brown bribed Russo with cash that the longtime mayor used to buy a BMW and that he brought Russo and Sutley into a multimillion-dollar real estate venture in Gulf Shores.

Already a group has begun organized opposition to The Water Club, buying newspaper ads that urge residents to pressure council members into voting against it.

The ad, paid for by the Committee for Responsive Government, of which resident Harold Walker is listed as the chairman, refers to Brown as an "indicted developer" in its bold-type headline. "Has Jim Brown got a deal for us!" it later reads.

"Yes The Water Club will close the citizens out of the beach views," the ad continues. "They will grace you with a view of concrete and blue glass -- 31 stories of it!"

Brown and Wall could not be reached for comment Friday afternoon.

Brown, Russo and Sutley, as well as former Councilman Joe McCarron -- who is charged separately with using his old posts on the council and the Planning Commission to drum up business for his insurance firm -- are scheduled for arraignment Feb. 24 in Bay Minette before Baldwin County Circuit Judge Charles Partin, according to court records.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Orange Beach Civic Center Design Firm

Council will vote on contract with Miami firm to plan facility next to City Hall
Thursday, February 02, 2006
Staff Reporter

ORANGE BEACH -- For a site immediately south of City Hall, city leaders envision a civic center that can offer meeting space, a place for Mardi Gras balls and conventions, courts for indoor sports and a stage for the arts.

And to plan such a place, city leaders have chosen Spillis Candela DMJM, a Miami-based architectural and engineering firm that has designed courthouses, city halls, civic centers and corporate headquarters across the country.

At its Tuesday meeting, the City Council is expected to initiate the first phase of a contract with Spillis Candela, which would pay the company $120,000 to examine 240 city-owned acres on Alabama 161 to select a site for the building as well as develop a master plan for the project.

In its proposed contract with the city, Spillis Candela based its pricing, tasks and work schedule on the assumption that Orange Beach wanted a multi-purpose building in the 50,000-square-foot range that could host a variety of public and private events, from 1,000-person banquets to smaller affairs.

All told, Spillis Candela projects the cost of the building at about $225 per square foot, which, for a 50,000-square-foot building, would equal $11.25 million. At that price, Spillis Candela would charge Orange Beach just over $1 million plus its expenses, like travel, to usher the project through construction. If the price of the finished product escalates significantly, however, the company will ask for more money, according to the contract.

Planning the facility, drawing the detailed construction plans and otherwise getting the project ready to build will take 54 weeks, the contract estimates. Construction will likely last two years, the contract states.

The building's programming is included in that portion of the contract that the council will vote to initiate Tuesday.

City Administrator Jeff Moon, at a recent council work session, said, "This is basically what you're talking about with the design charette, going through the what-do-you-want-to-see-put-in-the-building process. That's what we're referring to when we say programming: What that building will be able to support."

During this programming, the designers will meet with city officials and attend public work sessions to gather input and devise a plan for the building down to details such as which walls will be moveable and how high the ceilings will be.

At the end of the work, the city will have a master plan for the building, a three-dimensional and full-color artists' rendering of it as well as a preferred building location on the 240 acres and three alternative sites, according to the contract.

Officials Propose an Expansion of Endangered Mouse Habitat

Thursday, February 02, 2006
Staff Reporter

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has proposed redrawing the habitat vital to the endangered Alabama beach mouse's survival to include areas beyond the surfside dunes that were originally believed to be its main home.

In total, the Fish & Wildlife proposes to name 1,298 acres in the Gulf Shores area as "critical habitat." That doesn't mean those areas will be preserved, but that special permits are needed to build there.

From the time the beach mouse was first listed as endangered in 1985, 1,034 acres -- concentrated in primary and secondary dunes in the Gulf Shores area -- have comprised the rodent's critical habitat.

"Since then we've learned a lot more," said Daphne-based Fish & Wildlife Service spokesman Mike Groutt. "We've found out that some of the higher elevation dunes found in the scrub line are very important, especially in hurricanes."

While the proposed habitat boundaries include areas well north of the previous mouse confines, such as the 330-foot-wide right of way that follows Alabama 180 and the Gulf Highlands subdivision, other areas were dropped from the critical territory.

Such areas, according to the Fish & Wildlife Service's report released Wednesday, were excluded as critical habitat because they are public lands that already have suitable conservation plans in place, such as the Gulf State Park and parts of the Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge.

Or they are privately held tracts whose owners have received special permits from federal regulators that absolve them from culpability if they accidentally harm or kill beach mice. This private land, which includes large resort developments like The Beach Club and 49 single-family homes, consists of 122 acres, according to the proposal.

The proposed changes were borne of a 2003 lawsuit filed by the Sierra Club and the Center for Biological Diversity that charged the Wildlife Service was not expanding the species' critical habitat swiftly enough, despite acknowledging in 2000 that doing so was warranted. In 2004, a federal judge ordered that the habitat be revised.

Public comments regarding the proposal will be accepted until April 3 and the Wildlife Service aims to file a final ruling by January on the mouse's habitat.

Written comments can be delivered in person or mailed to U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Attn.: Acting Field Supervisor, 1208-B Main St., Daphne, AL 36526; sent by fax to (251) 441-6222; or e-mailed to