DAPHNE, Ala. (WALA) – When planning commissions receive proposals for new housing developments, they scrutinize such details as the length-to-width ratio of the buildings, setback distances and the capacity of utilities like water and sewerage.
One thing they don’t consider? Whether the schools can handle the influx from new families.
State Sen. Chris Elliott (R-Daphne) aimed to fix that during this year’s legislative session with a bill that would have given school systems in Baldwin County a formal voice in the planning process. Developers proposing subdivisions in Baldwin of 100 or more lots or apartment buildings of 100 or more units would have been required to notify the local superintendent, who then would have had 30 days to comment about the impact on schools.
Planning boards also would have been given the ability to consider that impact when reviewing development proposals – something they cannot do now.
The bill passed the Senate, but the state House of Representatives killed it after the county’s mayors objected. Elliott expressed exasperation.
“You know, growth is the single-largest issue in Baldwin County, and people come to Baldwin County because of our schools,” he said. “I mean, that’s why we’re growing, you know, the way we are, is ’cause we have great schools here in Baldwin County.”
But the mayors of all 14 municipalities signed a letter opposing the bill. The letter complained that legislators had not consulted them and that there was a perception that the legislation was an attempt to “take away authority from local municipalities.”
Fairhope Mayor Karin Wilson said the bill would have been ineffective and ignored the many smaller developments that cumulatively put just as much strain on services. She argued County Commission ought to use the authority it already has to impose impact fees on new construction.
“It’s not adequate,” she said. “It’s really – the proposition is more of a micromanaged way of addressing our growth. … There’s no funding element to it. Doing it this way is very reactive.”
Longtime Robertsdale Mayor Charles Murphy, who led opposition to the legislation, offered practical concerns. He cited state law requiring planning commissions to approve or reject a development plan within 30 days of submission of a plat.
“Otherwise,” the statute states, “the plat shall be deemed to have been approved.”
Murphy said that ties the hand of municipal officials. He said adding a 30-day review period for school system officials would prevent planning boards from rejecting projects.
“We’ve got to play by the guidelines,” he said. “If we don’t, we’re going to get sued, and the developer is going to win.”
Murphy said schools officials can attend planning meetings and access public agendas to keep up with new housing.
Elliott argued Murphy’s objection is disingenuous. He said his bill would have required the school system to be notified much earlier than when developers submit their plats.
‘We were shocked’
Baldwin schools officials contend they lack timely information more than money. The system is in the middle of a four-year, $100 million construction program financed by a 1 percent sales tax that officials use to take out short-term loans.
A new elementary school and a two-story high school building in Elberta will open this coming school year, followed by four new or expanded schools in 2020. Three more projects are on the drawing board.
But Chief Financial Officer John Wilson said those plans can be disrupted by unforeseen development. He pointed to a 14-classroom expansion recently completed at Daphne East Elementary School that officials figured would enable them to remove portable classrooms.
But two weeks after starting construction in 2017, officials learned that the 900-home Jubilee Farms subdivision was in the works off of Alabama 181 in Belforest. Wilson said that mega-project, which will come online over the next several years, and new apartments that will fill up faster, put immediate strain on Daphne East.
“We were shocked. You know, we did the expansion, we broke ground on it and then we became aware of this massive development after the construction contracts and everything else was on order,” he said. “We’re having to put portables in front of that now. I mean, that’s the last thing we wanted to do.”
The result, Wilson said, is that the expansion at the school bought it only one school year without portable classrooms. They will return for the school year beginning in August.
Had the system known about Jubilee Farms further in advance, Wilson said, it might have decided not to build the addition and fast-tracked a new elementary school currently under construction off of Alabama 64 in Belforest. That school is slated to open in 2020 with a capacity of 1,200 students.
Wilson said the school system anticipates about 800 students the first year, relieving pressure on schools in Daphne and Spanish Fort. In addition to Daphne East, Rockwell Elementary School is temporary classroom units and will get more this summer.
But given the rate of development on the Eastern Shore, Wilson said it is unclear how long it will be before Belforest Elementary also is filled to capacity. He said new subdivisions and apartment buildings have forced the system to order almost $4 million worth of changes to the school, as well as a new elementary school planned at the site of the current Foley Intermediate School in order to account for new developments under way near them.
Elliott said he is perplexed by the mayors’ contention his bill would curtail their authority. In fact, he said, it would have enhanced it by giving cities the ability to consider schools along with other utilities when reviewing new construction.
“That was the whole point of the bill – was to give them that authority, was to give them the authority to actually take into account what the school system was saying,” he said.
Elliott added that he has no doubt ordinary resident of Baldwin County want the impact on schools to be considered.
“It was wildly popular with the public,” he said. “I clearly understand that the public wanted us to consider that information and that data when making planning decisions, which why I’m just befuddled that the mayors did not see that.”
Baldwin schools Superintendent Eddie Tyler said he was not asking for veto power over new development, just a seat at the table.
“All I want is an opportunity to be heard, as superintendent of the … fastest-growing system in Alabama,” he said.
BALDWIN SCHOOL CONSTRUCTION
Planned or ongoing school projects in Baldwin County:
New Bay Minette Elementary School (at site of current Bay Minette Intermediate)
- Opening: 2019
- Capacity: 1,200, with a projected enrollment of 750
New Elberta High School
- Opening: 2019
- Enrollment: about 500 middle and high school by 2020, when 12th grade is added
Spanish Fort High School expansion
- Projected completion: December 2019
- Capacity: 24 additional rooms, raising total from 1,100 to 1,600
New Belforest Elementary School
- Opening 2020
- Capacity: 1,200 capacity, with a projected enrollment of 800
New Mathis Elementary School (site of current Foley Intermediate)
- Opening: 2020
- Capacity: 1,200, with a projected enrollment of 800
New Orange Beach Middle-High School
- Opening: 2020
- Capacity: 1,000, with projected enrollment of 400 to 500
Expanded Fairhope Elementary School
- Projected completion: 2020
- Capacity: 16 additional rooms, raising capacity to 1,200
Daphne Middle School expansion
- Projected completion: Possibly 2021
- Capacity: Cafeteria and 14 additional classrooms, raising total from 700 to 1,100
New Spanish Fort elementary school
- Opening: 2022
- Capacity: 1,200