Monday, December 18, 2006

Orange Beach Mulling Purchase of San Roc Cay

Mixed-use marina development would substitute for municipal marina plans

Published By Mobile Press Register
Monday, December 18, 2006
Staff Reporter

ORANGE BEACH -- City officials are contemplating an offer to buy San Roc Cay, the mixed-use marina property that sits on the southern shore of Cotton Bayou near Perdido Pass and fronts Alabama 182.

In the meantime, plans to build a municipal marina on Terry Cove for fare-carrying vessels, such as charter fishing and sight-seeing boats, have been put on hold.

Should Orange Beach work out a deal with San Roc Cay's owner, Robin Wade Jr., the city would not build on the former Walker Marina and instead use the Cotton Bayou development as its municipal marina, Mayor Pete Blalock said Friday.

"There's a possibility that it could be a good bit cheaper than building our own, with land costs," Blalock said.

The mayor and City Administrator Jeff Moon said the City Council, at its all-day retreat earlier last week, decided not to pursue in the coming year other proposed property acquisitions -- such as a strip of land near the Waterfront Park -- and also settled on delaying the development of a civic center next to City Hall. The San Roc Cay proposal, which heated up in the days before the retreat, will move to the forefront of the council's early 2007 agenda, they said.

By simply buying San Roc Cay instead of building a marina on the Terry Cove parcel, it's possible Orange Beach could see seven-figure savings, Moon and Blalock said.

"The cost of purchasing San Roc is less than what it would cost us to build a new marina with a parking deck," Moon said. "We'll be looking at it and weighing all our alternatives in the next 30 to 60 days."

Wade, who lives both in Orange Beach and Birmingham, where he runs Wade Sand & Gravel Co., could not be reached for comment.

Opened in 1999, San Roc Cay combines four restaurants, about 20 high-end retail shops, a 120-space underground parking lot and a 54-slip marina on four acres in a style that blends the architectural styles of Tuscany with those of south Florida.

In early 2004 Orange Beach acquired the hurricane-damaged Walker Marina and five acres on Terry Cove using a combination of $7.6 million cash and property -- a small tract fronting Wolf Bay, valued at $2.1 million -- from an employee of former HealthSouth CEO Richard Scrushy.

Scrushy bought the marina and adjacent property along Canal Road in the summer of 2003 for a total of $3.45 million, according to court records.

In July 2005, the city paid Florida's MRD Associates $37,500 to design for the site a municipal marina that would accommodate charter boats. Such vessels, one of the main cogs in Orange Beach's tourist economy, have been losing dock space regularly as old marinas are redeveloped as waterfront resorts.

The plans that MRD came up with called for a five-story parking deck, a 54-slip marina and a three-story building for a dock store, offices and such. The price tag, Moon said, is expected to be somewhere

between $17 million and $19 million. Add the land costs and the project inches toward $30 million.

Moon said there have been no decisions made on what to do with the Walker Marina property other than to put the marina project -- which has been permitted but not fully designed -- on hold. It's possible that the land could be sold to help finance a San Roc Cay purchase or improvements there, like a parking deck, Moon said.

Moon and Blalock said they didn't want to make public the asking price until the city has inked an option to buy the property. Already the council has agreed to split the cost of an appraisal of San Roc Cay, which is expected to be finished by late February.

Blalock said that it's possible Wade could sell to the city for below the market price, able to "gift" the remaining value to the public. Such an approach, which helped the city obtain Robinson Island in 2004, could mean a big tax break for the seller and a price for the city lower than any private buyer could get.

Among the issues city officials are seeking to sort out before an offer sheet is signed is what to do with the 40,000 square feet of retail space.

"We don't foresee us being the landlord," Blalock said. "If we buy it we'll own it, but we see a lot of alternatives there. One is we don't want to be in the management business."

Options, Blalock said, include:

Hiring a management firm to run the day-to-day operations of the retail and restaurant space.

Selling off the commercial areas while retaining the marina, parking and other common areas.

Creating a condominium in which the owner of each business owns his or her own space.

Regardless of the manner, the mayor said he wants the businesses to remain and thrive.

"You need to make sure leases are competitive to where people can have success," Blalock said. "That way not only would you get income from those leases but the city would also get the income from the sales tax revenue."

Said Moon: "There's a possibility that the revenue alone could finance the bond or warrant to pay for it. That's when we said, We can't dismiss this, we've got to call time out.'"

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Orange Beach Land Bid Gets OK from Panel

Mayor will offer $2 million for waterfront tract where Wolf Bay span would take off
Thursday, December 07, 2006

Published By Mobile Press Register
Staff Reporter
ORANGE BEACH -- Mayor Pete Blalock will offer $2 million for 2½ acres along Wolf Bay that is targeted to become the launching point for a bridge to Sapling Point.

The City Council voted unanimously Tuesday to allow Blalock to offer that amount based on the value a city-hired appraiser assigned to the tract, though city officials said the property's owners have indicated they want more than $2 million.

"Obviously, I have no clue what they'll do," the mayor said. "I'm pretty sure they'll probably want more than that but we have to start somewhere."

Baldwin County Development LLC owns the property after buying it in April 2004 for $3.5 million, according to Baldwin County Probate records.

Moon said that while the city had previously talked with other investors who had a contract to buy the land, that deal has expired and Orange Beach is now negotiating with a Birmingham attorney who represents Baldwin County Development.

Moon said the investors the city has been dealing with since the council authorized the mayor in July to bid on the land have asked for prices that have varied between $4.5 and $5.5 million.

"We have to offer, in my opinion, what the appraisal was," Blalock said. "It's not about what the market was, it's about what the market is."

Since the property -- five lots sitting near the terminus of Alabama 161 -- would be required for a bridge to be built, it could become subject of condemnation, in which the city would pay an appraised, not market, value of the property.

Such a process can involve an appeal of the appraised value, and it's not certain the $2 million price would stand as the amount the city would have to pay the landowners if Orange Beach tried to acquire the land through eminent domain proceedings, Blalock said.

Appraised values of property can be less than what land may fetch on the open market because, for one thing, appraisals may not take into account all development possibilities.

At one point a condominium project was proposed for the 2½ acres, but those plans have expired, city officials have said.

City officials also anticipate receiving in the next month a report from Figg Engineering that will examine the feasibility of a span over Wolf Bay.

Besides updating the decades-old plans for the bridge and the environmental impact of such a structure, the analysis will look at how far north a bridge-connected road must extend to be a viable hurricane evacuation route and attract sufficient traffic to justify construction. Also a topic of the study is how the city might pay for the bridge.

Recent estimates figure that a span linking Alabama 161 to thousands of undeveloped acres north of Wolf Bay could cost $60 million and there have been some discussions about charging a toll to use the bridge or working with private companies to build the project.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Ft. Morgan Beach Access Rejected

Published By Mobile Press Register
Monday, December 04, 2006
Staff Reporter

Daphne developer Rick Fine wants to build what he suspects would be the biggest public boardwalk in Alabama between his planned Fort Morgan hotel, called The Sanctuary, and the Gulf of Mexico.

He envisions a winding, handicap-accessible, elevated walkway, with lookout stations for birders and interpretive signage noting the nuances of the surrounding maritime forest, linking his 260-room hotel with one of Alabama's last virgin beaches.

Problem is, the mile-long structure would have to traverse a section of the Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge that is currently inaccessible -- a characteristic federal wildlife officials hope to preserve.

"Our primary purpose is to protect wildlife," said Lloyd Culp, project leader for the Gulf Coast National Wildlife Refuge Complex, which includes the Fort Morgan preserve as well as the Mississippi Sandhill Crane and Grand Bay national wildlife refuges. "This proposal would go through a portion of the refuge that we would not like to invite public use through."

The boardwalk would also meander across a part of the refuge that regulators regularly burn in order to benefit native species, such as long-leaf pine and gopher tortoises, Culp said.

Fine has pitched his vision to local officials with U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, which manages the nation's refuges, the agency's regional office in Atlanta and top brass in Washington, all to no avail. Beyond paying for the boardwalk's construction, which he says could top $1 million, Fine has pledged to endow a maintenance fund for the structure and donate $200,000 for a new refuge visitors center.

"I'm offering to do something really nice here and all I'm getting is a hard time," Fine said last week.

With his proposal now before Deputy Secretary of the Interior P. Lynn Scarlett, there aren't many rungs on the ladder left to climb. U.S. Rep. Jo Bonner, R-Mobile, has declined to back Fine's boardwalk after some Fort Morgan residents voiced opposition, Fine said and the congressman's staff confirmed.

Thus far, Culp said, his bosses in Atlanta and Washington have backed his decision, and he doesn't expect a reversal: "I can't see it happening."

Plans to build The Sanctuary on about 12 acres surrounded by the refuge on three sides and Fort Morgan Road on the fourth were approved by the Gulf Shores City Council in July.

Inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright's theory of organic architecture, Fine's designs call for one eight-story building and four smaller "villas," each with 12 rooms, set among the site's live oaks and sand pines. Also in the designs: Parking within the main tower, outdoor poolside restaurants, a cantilevered pool projecting from the hotel's fourth floor, where another eatery is planned, and a 6,000-square-foot estuarium featuring native fish in the lobby.

The developer said he hopes to begin construction within a year and is negotiating with Wyndham Hotels to manage the resort.

As part of the deal with the city to rezone the land for his plans, Fine agreed to limit construction of the resort to about 4½ acres. And he pledged to spend up to $1 million to continue the city's bike path along the north side of Fort Morgan, from its current end at the Peninsula subdivision to his hotel seven miles to the west and then another mile along the highway's south side to Veterans Road.

Combined with those paths and existing public trails on the refuge, Fine -- who said he raised his children in a home near the hotel site -- said his boardwalk could be the missing link in a stunning hike that would add to the area's ecotourism assets.

Culp, of the wildlife refuge, however, said that public use of the swath of refuge where Fine is building, called the Perdue Unit, is already as high as regulators would like it. Any more access and the refuge could be at risk of losing its allure as the area's only truly natural beach, Culp said.

"It's not always in our best interest to invite huge numbers of people to the beach," he said.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Orange Beach Comprehensive Plan Unveiled

Report takes stock of city, outlines development policies through 2020
Published By Mobile Press Register
Friday, December 01, 2006
Staff Reporter

ORANGE BEACH -- The average daily seasonal population of this south Baldwin County resort city is expected to surge to 31,807 by 2020.

Perdido Beach Resort, with 350 on the payroll, has the most employees in town this year, followed by City Hall, which provides jobs to 246.

And a bridge over Wolf Bay, should it be built, could boost Orange Beach -- population: some 5,300 -- to a city of 52,000 by 2015. That figure assumes the city would bring in about 5,000 acres north of the bay and see them developed fully.

Should the bridge not materialize, Orange Beach should see more deliberate population growth resulting in a year-round population between 7,300 and 10,900 by 2015.

Such are among of the numerous nuggets of information about Orange Beach included in the coastal city's new comprehensive plan, unveiled by city planners Tuesday night.

The plan, which is intended to be a reference of sorts and guide development and municipal spending through 2020, replaces the last comprehensive plan, written and adopted in 1996. The new plan was prepared by city planners and the South Alabama Regional Planning Commission and was based, in large part, on the recommendations of several resident focus groups that caucused last year to chart the future of Orange Beach.

Called Horizons 20/20, that program resulted in reports on the city's needs related to issues such as transportation, zoning and land use, environment, education and culture. All that and more is addressed in the 118-page comprehensive plan, which was adopted by the Planning Commission on Nov. 14.

The document, which can be viewed on the city's Web site,, is exhaustive to be sure.

There is an inventory of the fire department's vehicles -- 24 in all -- and a listing of the number and nature of all calls the department received between 1995 and 2005. The library's current shelving capacity -- 3,186 linear inches -- is noted, as is the facility's future needs: 55,000 volumes by 2010.

If one ever wanted to know the amenities available at, say, Bear Point Park, they could turn to Page 80 and learn that the 2.3-acre plot next to Bear Point Marina features a swing set, two spring rocking animals, a see-saw, a metal square climber and one stub for a merry-go-round, which is, at the moment, missing.

On Page 41 there are 145 words on the city's need for street furniture, such as information kiosks, fountains both decorative and for drinking, and litter baskets. "Streetscapes are, in large measure, defined and enhanced by the orderly, disciplined installation of street furniture," the plan states.

Table 20 in the section on housing enumerates the utilities provided at the city's four mobile home parks. Another table, this one on Page 62, lists the average daily traffic counts on sections of the three state highways in Orange Beach -- Alabama 161 has seen traffic increase by 31 percent between 1999 and 2005 while vehicle volume on Alabama 182 between the Florida line and highway 161 is up only 3 percent in that same time.

"All this information really helps when you're starting to do a capital improvement plan," Community Development Director Jim Lawson told a group of about two dozen residents who gathered Tuesday night at the Orange Beach Community Center for the presentation. "When the council looks at where our money should be spent and what we should be doing, this type of comp plan really helps them out a lot."

Perhaps of greatest interest to residents are the portions addressing future development in the rapidly growing city. At its core the comprehensive plan envisions the city as five separate districts, or neighborhoods. They are:

The Gateway, which runs along Alabama 161.

Wolf Bay, which includes Sapling Point and other recently annexed but yet-to-be developed areas outside of Josephine.

Northwest Orange Beach, which includes the areas off Canal Road and Oak Ridge Drive west of 161 as well as those along the Foley Beach Express.

Beach Resort, which follows Alabama 182 along the Gulf.

East Orange Beach, which comprises the backbay neighborhoods east of 161.

"We hope over a period of time we'll be able to go into each of the neighborhood areas that are identified ... here and do some more detailed work," Lawson said.

He noted the plan currently being developed for the Bear Point area. While the comprehensive plan says this area should remain predominantly developed with single-family homes, the neighborhood plan will specify details such as the width of sidewalks, the style of streetlights and the placement of parks.


Orange Beach comprehensive plan: