FAIRHOPE – The Fairhope City Council approved a conceptual plan for the Working Waterfront project but members still question the need to build an access ramp on the bluffs over South Beach.
The council voted unanimously Monday, April 26 to approve the concept for the project. The vote came with the condition that an outside third party review the plan to determine if the ramp must be built to comply with the Americans With Disabilities Act.
Council President Jack Burrell said residents have expressed concerns about building the ramp or other structures on the bluffs overlooking Mobile Bay.
“A lot of the debate has focused on whether or not we have to construct a ramp. Because we are proposing to refurbish the stairs. And I do hear many of you saying that we need to refurbish the stairs,” Burrell told audience members at the meeting. “It was the city’s position that to follow the ADA guidelines we had to construct a ramp. Those facts are being disputed.”
Mayor Sherry Sullivan said the plan approved by the council is a general concept. Specific items, such as the ramp and bathrooms, would have to be bid on and approved by the council during the work.
“Approving the concept knowing that we are going to get independent review of this component of the project and based on those findings, it may be removed from the overall plan,” Sullivan said. “It’s not that narrow. The scope does not outline each component. It doesn’t say a bathroom, two sets of stairs, a ramp system. It doesn’t say any of that.”
During the council meeting, several residents said they believed that the work would damage the bluffs.
“That area of the city is simply irreplaceable, probably on the globe,” Tennant Williams said. “It's been here long before the founders created this place and hopefully it will always be here and once it is changed, it's changed. So, all we do is urge that the process to change it kind of slow down. Look at all the options. That the process be open to many different ideas, continuing and the slight delay is not going to cost you more money.”
Chris Knight thanked Sullivan and the designers for modifying the plan to reduce the changes to the bluff area, but said more changes are needed.
“I would also like to suggest that the scope of the project could be looked at even further and many more improvements could be made,” Knight said. “I think that the citizens of Fairhope really enjoy what is now called Utopia Park. I think that's a beautiful strip park at the top of the bluff and actually requires no improvements whatsoever. To eliminate more green space by the addition of sidewalks up there would be a huge mistake. We don't need any more sidewalks. We just need more greenspace. I think the projects could be vastly improved if the bluffs were left untouched. The staircases that are currently there are just fine. They've been there for years. The people who use that park go up and down those stairs many times every day and they work just fine.”
Burrell said the city would consider residents’ concerns in making plans for the project.
“There were a lot of people, a lot of citizens, opposed to several items that were in the plan. The mayor and staff went back to the drawing board and came back with a revised plan and I think that the feedback has generally been very, very good with the proposed changes with the exception of stairs and a ramp that will be located or are proposed to be located at the south end of this park,” Burrell said. “There have been a few objections to the placement of the bathrooms. I’ll just tell you, in regards to that, the scope of work would include the bathrooms, but where they go on the map is subject to debate. We just need to know whether or not to put them in, if the council wants to leave them in.”
The project is being paid for with $6.2 million from the Resources and Ecosystems Sustainability, Tourist Opportunities and Revived Economies of the Gulf Coast Act, known as the RESTORE Act. Sullivan said city officials will also determine what changes can be made to plans and still comply with the conditions of the grant.
“These RESTORE projects are not easy to manipulate as far as the scope of work” she said. “That’s why we have gone through this long process of public engagement and bringing it before the council. You have a conceptual and each piece and part and component has to be bid, but there are some strict guidelines when it comes to using this federal money and we just want to make sure we’re good stewards of that and that we’re following the process, so we don’t have to pay that money back.”