Public Land for Private Profit: A Lesson from Alabama

As the Press-Register article below shows, Jekyll Island is not the only state park where private development of public land is taking place and where average income visitors are concerned about being priced out of their own state park. The difference, so far, is that, when Alabama citizens mounted a court challenge to the state’s plan to build a high-end hotel at Gulf Shores State Park, the Alabama Supreme Court ruled in their favor. Now, a group of State lawmakers are trying to get around the Court ruling by legislating the hotel project into existence.  A decision on the Gulf Shores project should be reached within the next few weeks.

David Kyler (Executive Director of the Center for a Sustainable Coast) had this to say about the Gulf Shores State Park situation:  “The significant difference between this Alabama case and Jekyll are that (1) the ‘Bama people are openly admitting they need the revenues to support all state operations, not just the state park, and (2) the laudable refusal of the AL supreme court to allow it and other officials openly challenging the luxury-market approach in a state park, as opposed to the wink-wink, nudge-nudge green light given by almost all Georgia officials for Linger Longer Communities’ cushy project and the Jekyll Island Authority’s giveaway for it.”

Gulf State Park hotel supporters take case to Legislature
The Press-Register
April 28, 2009

MONTGOMERY — Backers of a plan, rebuffed by the Alabama Supreme Court, to put a private, luxury hotel on state-owned Gulf Shores beaches are taking their case to the Legislature.

For nearly 90 minutes of a House committee meeting last week, some of the state's most influential figures debated whether an unrelated bill should be changed to block the hotel or to fast-track its approval.

State Revenue Commissioner Tim Russell told the House Government Operations Committee that his department must take in $1 million per hour to keep agencies running, and a beachfront resort would mean big money.

"I'm here to say that, on behalf of the governor and the state, we think we need the state park (hotel) up and running to support the average citizen," Russell said.

Former state Conservation Commissioner Charley Grimsley said that building a high-priced hotel in Gulf State Park would be tantamount to telling average citizens to "ride on the back of the bus."

"I've heard people on this project say, 'Poor folks ought to go across the highway and sit on picnic tables, while rich people sip champagne on the beach,'" he said. "I don't think that's right. The state parks were built for all Alabamians."

The state once had a hotel in the park, but the Gulf State Park Lodge was destroyed by Hurricane Ivan in 2004 and never rebuilt.

Gov. Bob Riley proposed replacing that hotel with a private resort and convention center. His plan called for the state to arrange a long-term lease with Auburn University, which would then sublease the land to Atlanta-based West Paces Hotel Group.

Opponents sued, and the matter was in Alabama courts for four years, until the state's highest court ruled against Riley about a month ago.

Russell sees a bill concerning a separate parcel of Gulf Shores land as a quick way to get around the Supreme Court ruling.

"If we can get this amendment through, than we can move forward this term," Russell said.

But the bill's sponsor, Sen. Larry Dixon, R-Montgomery, said he doesn't want either side to "commandeer" his measure.

"They're talking about what they'll be able to do if they can take this bill, tear it up and give you their substitute," Dixon told the committee, as he ripped a paper copy of his bill in half.

Dixon's proposal would require legislative approval for the sale or long-term lease of state-owned beachfront land located about five miles west of the former Gulf State Park Lodge.

Development of that land could be difficult, as it has been designated a critical habitat for the endangered Perdido Key beach mouse, but Dixon said he wants to make sure the "pristine" beach is protected.

The House committee will again consider whether to alter or pass Dixon's bill on Wednesday.

While Grimsley and Russell argue from opposite ends of the spectrum, the powerful heads of the Alabama Education Association, or AEA, and the Alabama State Employees Association are working for a compromise.

AEA chief Paul Hubbert said he'd favor a new hotel, if state employees ran the convention center and building were limited to the site of the old hotel.

"Alabama obviously needs a convention center on the Gulf Coast," Hubbert said.

(Staff Reporter Ryan Dezember and The Associated Press contributed to this report.)