For the first time in more than 10 years, residents in unzoned areas of unincorporated Baldwin County are banding together to form new planning districts. On Tuesday, the County Commission accepted notices of intent from residents south of Fairhope and north of Magnolia Springs to begin the process to form what may become Planning Districts 19 and 11, respectively.
Planning Director Vince Jackson told the commission Monday the county currently has 30 planning districts, but only 18 are zoned. Property within zoned planning districts have designated uses. Requests for development within those districts must meet the criteria of related zoning ordinances, or receive variances from one of the county’s four zoning boards of adjustment.
In order for new planning districts to be created, community organizers must submit petitions to the county with the signatures of 10 percent of qualified electors within the district. If the petitions are affirmed by the judge of probate, the County Commission shall instruct the judge to place the question on a ballot for those residing in the districts. Given the timeline provided, it’s unclear whether the petitions will be submitted in time for the districts to appear along with other local issues on the Nov. 3 general election ballot.
Planning and zoning referendums have had mixed results in the past. In April 2010, 67 percent of 1,887 voters rejected the proposed Planning District 14 in the Marlow area, but in December 2008, 53 percent of 308 voters approved Planning District 21 south of Magnolia Springs. Two other planning districts were rejected in 2007, but the year before, three of four proposed districts were approved by voters in separate referendums.
“This is an absolutely citizen-driven process,” Jackson said. “People came to us and said, ‘We’re in unzoned areas. We have concerns. What can we do?’”
Jackson added he worked with proponents to create the proposed boundaries, using both voting districts and “natural boundaries.”
Planning District 11, north of Magnolia Springs and west of Foley, would encompass roughly nine square miles bounded by County Road 9, U.S. Route 98, Underwood Road and about a half-mile east of County Road 55. Planning District 19 would encompass an area of Point Clear between the existing Planning District 26 — basically the Scenic 98 corridor — and areas north of County Road 32, west of Section Street and south of Battles Road.
PROPOSED PLANNING DISTRICTS 19
PROPOSED PLANNING DISTRICT 11
There, residents have butted heads several times with developers in recent years, primarily the Retirement Systems of Alabama (RSA), who have sought to construct more residential subdivisions and condos in and around the Lakewood Golf Club. RSA owns The Grand Hotel, which is in Planning District 26, but also the golf course and a large swath of undeveloped property south of Battles Road that would be wrapped into the new district.
Commission Chair Billie Jo Underwood said the process of forming planning districts is open to anyone who wants to exercise “their desire to grow responsibly” and it affords “lots of opportunity for the public to participate.”
“Many times we have complaints about development and I have to say, ‘I’m sorry, you live in an unzoned area,’” she said.
In other business, the commission discussed a $895,000 purchase of property from the city of Bay Minette to expand the county jail. The $35 million expansion, which would add 400 beds to the county’s 650-bed capacity, was approved by the County Commission via a bond issue in the 2020 budget. But the property purchase will be paid with $700,000 from the Law Enforcement Money Market Account, plus $195,000 from the general fund.
Sheriff Huey “Hoss” Mack explained although he considered constructing the expansion on a county-owned parking lot north of the existing jail, the site would have required a pedestrian bridge over or tunnel under Fourth Street. Instead, the sheriff will vacate his administrative offices next to the jail and relocate to the city property on the other side of North Hoyle Street. Then, the existing Baldwin County Sheriff’s Office (BCSO) base will be demolished to make way for the new jailhouse addition.
The Bay Minette Police Department, which currently occupies the city-owned property, will share the space with BCSO until a new police headquarters can be built one to two years in the future. Mayor Bob Wills said the property purchase for the new police headquarters has not yet been finalized.
Meanwhile, construction funding for the highly touted new boat launch on the Intracoastal Waterway is being renegotiated, as Underwood disclosed the state “is not happy” with the county’s request for $5.2 million in GOMESA funds for the project. The previous commission, she said, told the state the county would build the launch if the state bought the property.
Last November, Gov. Kay Ivey awarded $7.5 million worth of GOMESA money to purchase the 44-acre property, but the county requested another $5.2 million for construction. Underwood said state officials noted the county also currently has $7.2 million in unspent GOMESA funds in the bank and suggested tapping into its local funds.
While GOMESA funds have been used in the past to pave dirt roads, Baldwin County engineer Joey Nunnally told the commission he was delaying any expenditure from the 2019 and 2020 allocations to pay for the boat launch construction, if needed. All commissioners seemed to agree with Commissioner Jeb Ball’s request to “do whatever we need to do” to work with the state on a resolution.
“We can’t screw this up,” he said.
Finally, the commission did not appear receptive to a possible mask requirement for visitors or staff in county-owned buildings. Commissioner Charles “Skip” Gruber introduced the discussion with a concern that reported cases of COVID-19 are increasing, but Ball expressed disdain for the idea and noted the county is complying with Gov. Ivey’s “Safer at Home” order.
Underwood implied she was uncomfortable with mandating additional restrictions, but encouraged people to remain vigilant and abide by social distancing and sanitation guidelines. Commissioner Joe Davis, the only member wearing a mask, acknowledged the virus was “going to be here for a while,” but said wearing a mask is “a personal choice.”
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