Land-preservation groups and the property owner have joined forces to promote state acquisition of one of the last pieces of undeveloped Gulf shoreline left in Alabama — the 112-acre Gulf Highlands property on the Fort Morgan Peninsula.
The Alabama Coastal Heritage Trust, Weeks Bay Foundation, Mobile Bay Audubon Society and Gulf Highlands, LLC, which owns the parcel that includes 2,700 feet of beach frontage, asked in a letter sent last week that the Alabama conservation department use a portion of its share of BP criminal penalty monies through the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation to fund the purchase.
In January, a U.S. District Court Judge imposed the terms that the Justice Department and BP had agreed to in November 2012, which include the oil company pleading guilty to 14 criminal counts — among them, felony manslaughter charges related to the 11 crewmen killed when Transocean’s Deepwater Horizon rig exploded on April 20, 2010 — and the payment of a record $4 billion in criminal penalties over five years.
The judge ordered that $2.544 billion of the total go to the NFWF. Through its newly created Gulf Environmental Benefit Fund, the money is to be dispersed among the five coastal states for approved projects that remedy harm and eliminate or reduce the risk of future harm to Gulf Coast natural resources.
Over the next five years, the fund is scheduled to receive a total of $1.272 billion for barrier-island and river-diversion projects in Louisiana, $356 million each for natural resource projects in Alabama, Florida and Mississippi, and $203 million for similar projects in Texas.
“As we move forward with oil spill restoration in Alabama, the coastal land trusts would like to emphasize that acquisition of land is the most important restoration option,” the letter sent to Conservation Commissioner Gunter Guy Jr. states. “After the ExxonValdez disaster, Alaskan officials spent 55 percent of the money related to the spill on land acquisition. Purchasing coastal lands will help offset spill-related damages to our resources, ensure they are protected going forward, and provide for human access to our coasts.”
A recent tour of the property revealed it to be a relic of what Alabama’s coastal beach habitat probably looked like before human development changed it forever.
Nearly half of the property consists of rolling dunes from which sprout low-scrub plants dominated by oaks that resemble shrunken and twisted bonsai trees.
High dunes approaching 20 feet above sea level rise upward a hundred yards or so back from the water line. Most run parallel with it along the property’s entire half-mile width.
In a couple of spots, a lone dune or set of dunes, carved from the main line as it protected the coast from the ravages of hurricanes past, stand out closer to the beach.
“This is truly the last major undeveloped piece of our Gulf coastline,” said Ben Raines, executive director of the Weeks Bay Foundation. “Walking around among these 15 foot high dunes is like taking a trip back in time to what this place looked like before we got here.”
Besides the oaks, the most prominent features on the dunes are the Alabama beach mouse tracks leading to and from dozens of holes seen on a short walk that covered less than 10 percent of the tract’s interior habitat.
In one spot, dozens of tracks and a similar number of empty hulls indicated that a beach mouse party of sorts had been held with ripe oak acorns serving as the main course.
The dark-brown nuts had likely been gathered over the fall and winter and stored in underground caches before being carried above ground for the feast.
Luckily for the mice, other wildlife and birds that feed on them, another bumper crop of green acorns hung on the oaks so thick that their limbs drooped under the weight.
It was interesting to note in the sand the winding path of a snake over the tracks as it hunted in obviously very fertile ground for its preferred food – the beach mouse.
Yellow tape placed by “Share the Beach” sea turtle monitoring program volunteers marked a nest’s location within yards of gently lapping waves pushing onto the beach that day.
It was easy to imagine the land being one of the only spots left where migrating birds and butterflies can cross through a natural corridor with no buildings in the way from the Gulf to Mobile Bay.
“People think of the beach as just a big strip of sand, but seeing this complex forest that begins just back from the water and stretches all the way across the peninsula with a tremendous variety of plants, it’s eye opening,” Raines said.
Nick Wilmott, whose mother bought the property in 1997, said, the family is a willing seller.
“On one hand, I want to develop it, but on the other as a local resident, I think it would be a great asset for the state to own to the benefit of generations to come,” Wilmott said. “I don’t know of any other privately held parcel that’s as beautiful or as vast.”
Wilmott said the family has all of the necessary permits — including an incidental take permit allowing it to disturb beach mouse dens – to develop the land and “is not in dire need” of selling.
“It’s funny how for years you can be sitting on opposite side of the table from conservationists fighting development, and now we’re sitting on the same side of the table to the benefit of future generations; not just my family’s future, but generations of Alabama families can benefit from this purchase.”
The letter also states that purchasing this parcel will offset the state’s decision to use more than $50 million of BP settlement money to build a hotel and convention center at Gulf State Park east of Gulf Shores.
“This is a really signature project and we need to grab it up while we can,” said Hank Caddell, the Alabama Coastal Heritage Trust’s treasurer. “Compared to the other Gulf states, Alabama had a very small area of natural beach to begin with. A huge percentage, perhaps 90 percent, has been developed and foreclosed from public use for our four million citizens.
“Similarly, we have great expanses of natural beach that have been developed and compromised from an ecological standpoint. To try to make up for that in some small way by using 100 percent federal dollars to try and protect and preserve this 112 acre site, which is a marvelous beach and dune system, there just isn’t a more positive project.”
Caddell said the property’s current yellowbook valuation is in the neighborhood of $35 million, but added that, if the state moves forward, it would most certainly obtain a new appraisal.
That’s an eventuality that Wilmott said his family is willing to consider.
“We are understanding of that process and we’ll make our decision based on it when that time comes,” Wilmott said.
Economic conditions in the real estate market, recent hurricane impacts and insurance rate hikes because of them have combined to severely curtail beachfront development.
It’s a situation that makes buying the property now a priority, Raines said.
“The only reason this parcel is available is because of the economic recession and the insurance rate hikes that came after Katrina and Ivan. It has been approved for a 500 condo development,” Raines said. “With this money coming in from the BP oil spill, the state has a chance to buy one of the rarest bits of habitat left in Alabama.
“I snorkeled out there recently and there were pompano and whiting dashing around in the surf. This is the kind of place we want to make sure is still around for our children and grandchildren. Once this is gone, that’s it for the Alabama coast. There isn’t anything else left to preserve.”