The Gulf Shores Planning Commission meeting was packed Tuesday as the Commission discussed a Conditional Use Plan (CUP) proposed by the existing sewer company. Representatives for the sewer company were able to speak their case, but in the end, the Planning Commission resisted an expansion at the facility.

South Alabama Utility Service, Inc. and Baldwin County Sewer Service, LLC. (BCSS) are asking to expand services at the Fort Morgan Wastewater Treatment Plant on Highway 180, near the Lagoon Mobile Home subdivision.

Lee Jones, the Planning & Community Development director, presented the proposal and his staff's recommendation.

The property is in an R-1-4 zoning district, but the company started 30 years ago in unincorporated Baldwin County. In 2011, the property was automatically zoned R-1-4 when legislation passed annexing the property into the city limits of Gulf Shores. At that time, the company didn't apply for some permits because they said they didn't realize they were a part of the annexation.

In May 2022, the Baldwin County Sewer System (BCSS) received a cease and desist notice concerning the construction of a new sludge pond with a capacity of over one million gallons. The City said the company was not permitted to construct the pond.

BCSS did discontinue the use of the pond after receiving the cease and desist letter. Now, the company is asking for a conditional use permit to expand to keep up with increased demand.

However, city officials and residents do not believe the proposal meets zoning ordinance standards.

Laurie Eberly was one resident that addressed the Planning Commission Tuesday. As a Little Lagoon Preservation Society representative, Eberly said the site plan goes against the City of Gulf Shores' sustainability goals and the Alabama Coastal Area Management Program.

"Some of our core values do not align with this BCSS expansion plan," said Eberly.

She said an incident in 2018, when a sanitary sewer overflow leaked 75,000 gallons into Bear Creek, the sewer company was able to re-route sewage to other plants, including one in Orange Beach. She said this proves there are other options.

The issues include the sludge pond, buffers between the plant, housing and businesses, and dealings with the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM).

Fort Morgan Wastewater Treatment Plant operators disagree with the Commission staff.

"Approval of the CUP will allow for the efficient and effective operation and maintenance of the wastewater treatment plant as an Essential Services Facility," the applicant stated in the site plan.

Most of the waste comes from unincorporated areas of Baldwin County, around Foley and Magnolia Springs. Those areas have a growing population, meaning more waste is being produced.

"The Zoning Administrator has made the determination that the Fort Morgan wastewater treatment plant is a non-conforming use, and the Zoning Administrator stated that the use became a non-conforming use upon annexation of the subject property," the applicant stated. "The Sewer Company respectfully asserts that it is inappropriate for the City to characterize and treat an Essential Services Facility, like the wastewater treatment plant, as a non-conforming use. If the City had properly zoned the subject based on current use at the time of annexation, the property would not be in non-conforming status."

Zoning staff also stated the site plan is not beneficial for future land use in Gulf Shores.

The company's application to ADEM was denied last year, but the sewer company said that's because the agency asked for more information. A permit modification is now underway, according to David Connor, the attorney for the applicant. Connor said a lot of misrepresentation, lies and innuendo has been made about the company during this permit application process.

"In fairness, we need to deal in facts and not in innuendo in what's happening," said Connor.

Connor said the purpose of the water treatment plant is to protect the environment and the people in the community. He said ADEM refused a prior application request because the agency wanted more information. Regarding zoning, Connor said ADEM and the City of Gulf Shores have been putting the decision on each other.

"ADEM can't sit here and say, 'We're waiting on Gulf Shores to tell us if they're going to let you put it there,'" he stated. "And Gulf Shores can't say, 'Well, we're waiting on ADEM to tell us if you can do it or not. We've got to have some coordination at some time."

"You are here to protect all citizens and all businesses," Connor told the Planning Commission. "All of whom have rights. Corporations have rights, LLCs have rights. People have rights. And so, your job is to exercise your review authority and protect the rights of neighbors but also protect the rights of property owners, business owners and operators."

The zoning staff recommendation to the Commission was to deny the CUP or approve with conditions including a revised site plan limiting the facility's capacity, removing the sludge pond, providing landscape buffers and making other improvements on the property. The recommendations also require paperwork from ADEM and EPA.

The Planning Commission recommended the council deny the application and add a requirement for the company to remove the sludge pond. The vote received cheers from the crowd.

"Little Lagoon and Oyster Bay are vital treasures to our area," said Eberly. "The indigenous tribes thriving here for centuries valued the sisterhood of these waters so much that they hand-dug a canal connecting Oyster Bay to Little Lagoon in the sixth century. We cannot be the generation that fails to protect our heritage."

The four-hour-long meeting can be watched below.

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