Thursday, November 16, 2006

Orange Beach - Possible Beach Club for Wharf Owners

Published By Mobile Press Register
Thursday, November 16, 2006
Staff Reporter

ORANGE BEACH -- In a unanimous vote Tuesday the Planning Commission recommended that the City Council rezone about four Gulf-front acres to accommodate a private beach club for residents of AIG Baker's other residential developments in Baldwin County.

Proposed for a tract between the Beachside subdivision and two duplexes in western Orange Beach, the beach club -- which could offer pools, showers, cabanas and dining -- would serve owners of condos at The Wharf, the Birmingham developer's 220-acre mixed-use project on Canal Road, and Blackwater Plantation, a proposed 1,600-home subdivision in the Seminole area.

The Planning Commission saw no plans for the property, which prompted some debate about whether to grant the high-density beach resort zoning category AIG Baker asked for because it would also allow a condo tower up to 25 stories tall. The property is currently zoned for single-family structures.

While a rezoning application filed with the city by AIG Baker on Oct. 9 mentions plans for a 166-unit condominium, Community Development Director Jim Lawson said the firm has not yet shown his department any specific plans for a tower.

"They will want some kind of (condo) units but the main thing is to have the beach club for people who are living at The Wharf," Lawson told commission members. "AIG Baker has really made no representation to us that it's going to be 25, 24 stories."

While rezoning applicants are only required to show plans when they ask for planned unit development classification, developers will often tell city officials what they intend to build if their property is rezoned. That gave some commission members pause.

"If we rezone this they're going to put a 25-story condo right there," said Planning Commission member Al Bradley. "It doesn't matter what they say today, it's irrelevant."

Bradley and others, including Chairman Robert Stuart, said they were hesitant to grant the zoning without knowing what would be built since the property was sandwiched between single-family dwellings and duplexes.

Bo Owens, a Realtor with RE/MAX Orange Beach, said he has been working with AIG Baker and property owners along that stretch of beach for 20 months to assemble a tract for the beach club. The parcel to the east, upon which the duplexes sit, was intended to be included in the redevelopment, but two hurdles -- legal issues over its ownership and a steep asking price -- led to its exclusion.

"It's 106 feet priced at $16 million," Owens said. "That's the problem we ran into with that piece of property or it would be included."

It's 106 feet priced at $16 million," Owens said. "That's the problem we ran into with that piece of property or it would be included."

Owens also noted that towers in excess of 30 stories -- Coral Reef and Phoenix West II -- have already been approved for nearby tracts.

Rhonda Barber, one of the land owners selling to AIG Baker, said the transformation of the beach that came with the approval of those two towers and other obstacles led her to sell her land rather than rebuild.

"We wanted to repair the buildings, but with insurance and (Hurricane) Ivan it's really been a mess and I personally love that beach but now that Coral Reef is coming up on one side and Phoenix is coming up on the other side I just feel like it's best use of the property to go ahead and let the AIG Baker people go ahead and do what they want to," she said.

Also, Bob Nelson, with AIG Baker, promised the Planning Commission that whatever ended up being built would be up to the standards the firm has established with The Wharf.

"The intention, again, is to make sure the quality levels are commensurate with what we're doing at The Wharf, what we're going to be doing at Blackwater," Nelson said. "The quality of the units that we put in there at the beach club has to conform to what we're trying to do at the other projects."

Larry Alexander, a Planning Commission member who is also a city councilman, said he favored the plans for the beach club -- which would be linked by shuttle to AIG Baker's other developments -- because it would offer a way for the owners of the 1,335 planned condos and 853 proposed hotel units at The Wharf to get to the beach without adding traffic to the roads and clogging up public beaches.

"My vote hinges on the owner of (the duplexes) not being here," Bradley said. "If he was here and objected, I would vote against it."

Despite the questions, eight commission members voted for the rezoning, while Jil Walker, whose husband works for The Wharf, abstained.

The City Council has set a public hearing on the proposal for Dec. 5 at 4 p.m.