Thursday, May 14, 2009

Orange Beach Sewer plant land swap still not final

Originally Published by the Mobile Press Register


Thursday, May 14, 2009


Staff Reporter

ORANGE BEACH — Though the city's new $24 million wastewater treatment plant is about half complete, municipal officials have learned recently that problems remain with the land swap that provided the property upon which the facility is being built.

Ironing out details of the swap with the state delayed construction by nearly 18 months. And while the latest snag won't stall the already-started project, it will require the city to deed about 20 wooded acres worth $198,100 to the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources to satisfy federal regulators.

Elected officials, who were briefed on the matter during a City Council work session Tuesday, expressed no hesitation about giving the state the land, a slender piece southwest of City Hall. The council is scheduled to consider deeding the property to the state at its Tuesday meeting.

Mayor Tony Kennon said that with the original land swap, "the state essentially came to our res cue." The new plant will double the city's treatment capacity when it opens, most likely in spring.

To build the new plant, the city needed about 40 acres and wanted it south of Canal Road, where the odor from the existing facility had long greeted motorists upon their arrival to the city.

The only suitable land, city officials determined, was state-owned property south of the present facility. At the time, Orange Beach officials offered to trade land the city owned south of City Hall for

40 acres at the northern edge of Gulf State Park.

Greg Lein, assistant director of the Conservation Department's State Lands division, said the state agreed because "the city was under what was described as a public health crisis" in terms of the development pressure being put on its sewage treatment plant.

In March 2006, the state agreed to trade the 40 acres west of the city's Sportsplex for 48 acres of maritime forest along the city's Backcountry Trail.

That deal sent both tracts back to their previous owners.

Five years earlier the city traded 588 acres, including the sewer plant's 40, to the state in exchange for 204 acres south of City Hall.

It also piqued federal regulators, who noticed that in the 2001 swap, the state neglected to replace in a grant program some 240 acres of the land it was giving up.

The grant, dating back to the 1970s, was intended to finance state acquisition of land that would be set aside for public recreation and wildlife habitat.

State officials believed they had a solution, proposing to place deed restrictions on land they recently bought along the Perdido River to satisfy federal regulators. But the Perdido River property was appraised for only $2.2 million and the 240 acres were valued at $2,398,100, Lein wrote in a memo to city officials.

"It's not an acre-for-acre situation; it's a dollar-for-dollar situation," Lein said Tuesday.

As such, the state has asked Orange Beach for $198,100 worth of conserved property to insert into the equation, said Phillip West, Orange Beach's coastal resources director. The simplest solution, West said, is for the city to give the state 19.81 additional acres south of City Hall. That land has already been appraised at $10,000 an acre, Lein said.

"From a practical standpoint we're not giving up much," West said. The property is already traversed by three sections of the city's Backcountry Trail and the change in ownership wouldn't affect the popular nature path.

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