What is the City doing to manage the unprecedented growth -- and all the nuisances that come with it -- that we are experiencing as Baldwin County’s fastest growing city?
BackgroundBeing recognized nationally and internationally for our beauty, business friendliness, quality of life, as one of the best places to visit, raise a family, and retire, has come at a price of 26.7% growth in a short period from 2010 to 2018. It’s no secret that Fairhope is one of the fastest growing cities in the country.
When rapid growth and development began to strain the City’s ability to provide the high level of services that we all demand, to provide infrastructure to appropriately serve new development, and to maintain the small-town charm we have enjoyed, City leaders issued a limited and temporary moratorium. From December 2016 to September 2017 the moratorium was placed on major new developments of five or more subdivision lots and multiple occupancy permits. This temporary pause allowed us to identify issues and define solutions.
What We Have Been Doing
Over the moratorium period, a leadership team, including the Mayor and the Department heads from Planning, Economic and Community Development, Operations and Public Works began an integrated and coordinated look at these needs that resulted in “The City of Fairhope Moratorium Report.” The goal was to create a development process that was clear, predictable, consistent, transparent and fair, and that would be communicated well prior to, during and post-development. In this way, we hope to become nationally recognized as a leader in innovative planning techniques and design while upholding the legacy of Fairhope and its environmental stewardship.
Following are the key takeaways:
- All Major Subdivisions, Village Subdivisions and Multiple Occupancy Permits (MOP) now require a mandatory pre-application meeting with staff, as well as a community meeting with the neighboring property owners. Attendees to the pre-application meeting are applicants, engineers, architects, surveyors and any stakeholder in the application. The City staff includes representatives from planning, public works, building inspection and utilities. The purpose of the staff meeting is to discuss procedural issues, land use requirements, required approvals and information regarding public infrastructure impacts and required improvements. The applicant should come away from this meeting with a clear understanding of necessary requirements to gain approval. After the pre-application meeting, and before a formal application is submitted to the City, a community meeting is required to be held by the applicant with adjoining property owners and neighbors. The purpose of the community meeting is to solicit input in the design and development of a proposed project prior to formal engineered plans being drawn. Engaging the community early in the process allows the developer an opportunity to address concerns and engage in dialogue with the neighbors well ahead of a formal public hearing. We believe this early dialogue will be an asset to the developer, neighbors and the City.
- The Planning Department has refined our application review process to include an interdepartmental Development Review Meeting with key staff from Public Works, Utilities, Building Inspections, Economic and Community Affairs, and others. A comment letter noting any deficiencies, comments or concerns is provided to the applicant, prior to a full Development Review Committee (DRC) meeting that is held in an open format where any issues are discussed between applicant and staff. If the comments are satisfactorily addressed, the development application is placed on the Planning Commission agenda.
- Post construction procedures have been improved, with the Building Department thoroughly examining construction plans and conducting inspections at every phase. We have now included a “close out” procedure where parking, landscaping, and lighting for newly developed sites are evaluated to ensure that all requirements and conditions are met.
- The Central Business District (CBD) boundaries have been slightly extended to take in additional areas that have urban characteristics or that are suitable for urban uses. The height and number of habitable stories also slightly increased for applications inside the CBD. The goal is to create additional investment and redevelopment in underutilized properties downtown so that all properties in the CBD contribute to the character and economic vitality of our downtown. This change has resulted in four mixed use/retail projects that are underway.
- Planning staff is conducting a parking study for the CBD. All public parking has been geo-located and placed into the GIS system, classified into four categories: 1) on street parallel, 2) angled parking 3) surface level parking lot and 4) parking deck. We are currently calculating the total square footage of structures in the CBD and their categories to apply a common standard (such as the Institute of Transportation Engineers) to generate parking demand that can be compared to our parking supply. Once we know if parking is sufficient, we will begin a more focused review of peak demand to give us a strong baseline.
- Planning is now a collaborative approach among staff of various departments. This collaborative approach early in the development process has resulted in better coordination and several cost-share agreements with developers to upgrade adjacent, but off-site City infrastructure, such as drainage and utilities to better serve the larger areas.
- We have increased GIS capabilities for employees and citizens. The City now has an online map viewer on our website at fairhopeal.gov where property information such as zoning, overlay zones and key public facilities are searchable and printable. This new tool is routinely used by citizens, real estate professionals, appraisers, and engineers. In addition, the utilities are being digitally mapped in GIS with key identification and modeling of key facilities.
- We applied for and were awarded $650,000 from Restore Act funding to create and implement a new comprehensive land use plan. The exercise will incorporate all previous planning efforts and integrate community involvement to create a long-term vision for future growth in the Fairhope area, including inside the city limits, police jurisdiction and planning jurisdiction and will include public input meetings. This plan will tie together future land use planning and utility capacity and future upgrades as well as a target level of service for other key infrastructure such as road capacities, passive and active parks.
- We hired an experienced Professional Engineer as Public Works Director to lead and address growth issues related to Stormwater Management. Stormwater issues have been at the forefront of the moratorium objectives and the City is working to minimize ecological impacts from development by using the innovative Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design – LEED-certified – green practices for development. Significantly, the Public Works Department has been busy completing an inventory and evaluation of existing drainage systems within the City and mapping the Stormwater Management System (SWM) in detail through GIS. The Department has been identifying funding and creating a prioritized capital improvement plan for 5-, 10- and 25-year increments.
- We also hired an experienced Professional Engineer as Operations Director to lead and address growth issues related to Sanitary Sewer System and oversee our public utilities. With growth of 27% over 5 years and permitting increases of 57% since 2000 the Utilities Department is actively engaged in ensuring that this vital infrastructure can keep pace and prevent Sanitary Sewer Overflows. The Department led the completion of necessary studies to identify and implement improvements. The Operations Director provided the necessary information and direction to create Restore Act proposals for long-term improvements to the sewer systems. Two of these proposals totaling $11M were approved, and the projects are expected to move forward over the next 24-months following the required Department of Treasury process. [see Water Quality FAQ for more detail here: https://www.fairhopeal.gov/community/faq/water-quality
In addition, your City staff are:
- Learning about best practices in planning from several New Urbanist communities, including managing growth, pedestrian safety, stormwater management, and design;
- Identifying opportunities for re-development, including undeveloped properties and vacant buildings, as an alternative to new development;
- Working with local businesses to understand employment needs and help find solutions;
Serving as a resource for existing business and industry, including efforts to maintain a viable Central Business District;
- Increasing communications and outreach related to growth issues through community meetings, social and other media;
- Implementing a downtown traffic, parking and pedestrian safety plan [see more on traffic safety here: https://www.fairhopeal.gov/community/faq/traffic-safety-and-pedestrian-parking.
See the City of Fairhope Moratorium Report here: https://www.fairhopeal.gov/home/showdocument?id=15331, and other FAQs