Baldwin County is one of the fastest growing metropolitan areas in the country. It is also considered the fastest growing county in Alabama. Data from the 2020 U.S. Census shows that Baldwin’s population has jumped more than twenty-seven percent since 2010. That means more than two hundred additional residents inhabit Baldwin County. This means a lot of growing pains for people who live along the east coast of Alabama. APR spoke to residents of Baldwin County who remember the good old days and how they cope with a changing world …
“That says everything. We have fireflies here. I discovered the constellations that looked at the stars, ”recalls Elizabeth Wilson. She grew up before Baldwin County became the retirement mecca that it is now.
“When you’re a teenager, you want to grow up and get away from it all. I left. I went to Dallas for four years. And as soon as I left, I just wanted to come home, ”Wilson said. “
His family has farmed around Fairhope for four generations and his grandfather owns forty acres next to a development project called Clay Farms. It has just produced its last soybean crop and townhouses are about to take its place. Terracore Development Services has purchased nearly twenty acres and plans to build 140 homes. The neighbors know Fairhope is moving forward. They say they put their lives in the dirt and their neighborhood quiet. Elizabeth Wilson says she and her neighbors don’t want to see it destroyed.
“We started farming on Lawrence Road in the 1950s. All my life, it’s always been here, ”says Wilson. “Our farm was right outside the front door where they grew wheat and hay. When we weren’t at school, we would go there, help out and work in the field. It means everything to me. This is where I grew up. Our family, we do not move. We have settled here and we are staying here.
The problem Wilson and longtime residents of Baldwin County are struggling with is the demand for space. Newcomers need a place to live and neighborhoods are springing up where the farms used to be. Most of this land outside of Fairhope and other towns in Baldwin County is dezoned with few rules and regulations. This leaves the neighbors speechless and the developers free to build whatever they want. Developers say they are trying to meet demand for housing. People like Elizabeth Wilson and her family see what gets lost …
In the rural countryside of Lawrence Road, outside of Fairhope, quails forage in the fields and neighbors have moved here for the quiet country lifestyle. Some remember the days when the roads were dirt and telephone service was provided by the party line.
“The whole lot was divided into 40 acres, a quarter of a square mile,” said Elizabeth’s grandfather, who asked that we not use her name. He was only eight years old when he started driving a tractor on his father’s farm. He has been a farmer his entire life and recently drove a tractor over their land once again for his 90th birthday.
“We had a small dairy and raised potatoes,” recalls Wilson’s grandfather. “Everyone here had a dairy. They had about seven dairies here in this region. We scooped their hay for them. They always planted an acre of potatoes for their money. And we were digging their potatoes because we had the machines.
The farmland around Fairhope is unzoned, which many rural landowners wanted. But as these farmers die, their children often sell the land and developers tear it up. Without the zoning rules and regulations, they are free to build whatever they want.
“The challenge, when you see this development pressure, is that it is the perfect environment for development. There are fewer rules, fewer regulations, ”said Hunter Simmons. He sees this a lot as the planning and zoning director for Baldwin County. “So in general when you have rural areas that are under development pressure, especially when you go to non-zoned areas, farmland, large lots and rural areas, they’re not comfortable. with zoning because it’s someone telling them what to do with their land.
Simmons calls the non-zoned area “the wild west.” He says now is the time for communities to plan what they want to look like in the future and use zoning to control their development.
“If they support zoning and what they want their neighborhoods and communities to look like, then the zoning can reflect that,” Simmons observed. “Otherwise it might take 10 years, but the people who moved there are going to contribute their ideas on what it’s going to look like. If you think of it as a vote, there are more votes for their side. And then the people who may have lived there for generations. It becomes a challenge.
It may already be too late for the Lawrence Road development, but homeowners are doing what they can to tackle the townhomes, hoping for something smaller. Signs “Save Lawrence Road” and “This is a picture perfect” line the roads, and there is a place to take photos with hay bales and flowers. Neighbors say the developer is not answering their questions. He also declined interview requests. Without zoning, residents have no voice.
“When you put an autistic child on a horse, it lowers their blood pressure and sets up their vestibular system,” says Tanya Halterman of the Willow Creek Equestrian Center.
Tanya’s property is also two lots from the proposed townhouses. It is on the low point on its side of Lawrence Road and runoff from surrounding properties drains onto its pastures. She is concerned about the additional runoff from the new development. But she is more concerned about the safety of her students.
“My other concern, of course, is safety and security, because you see my kids running around the yard. I don’t hesitate to come here to pet the cow or catch a horse, ”said Halterman. “With 150 rental townhouses so close I can stay here and watch them. I worry about people wandering around, you know.
Traffic on the small road and constraints on infrastructure are also concerns. Several neighbors say they hope other non-zoned areas will learn from what is happening on Lawrence Road. Elizabeth Wilson takes action to fight development. She helped start Proposed Planning District 37 with other concerned citizens to establish planning and zoning in several areas outside of the city limits of Fairhope.
“And basically it takes a citizen to petition the county and say, hey, I would like this area to be zoned.” So I did that. And we came up with our new zoning map and now it’s my job to go door to door and collect signatures and educate the community on how zoning would help prevent that in the future.
The Town of Fairhope is currently holding community land use meetings to seek public input on its overall land use plan to meet growth with an emphasis on environmental stewardship. Wilson hopes it’s not too late to save the Baldwin County she remembers, the one with more fireflies and fewer new residents.
Editor’s Note – Community meetings will be held across Fairhope until March. Residents can also submit their comments to www.PlanFairhope.com.