Baldwin County, Alabama is home to the picturesque cities of Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, among other charmingly quaint cities and towns. This uniquely beautiful part of the state annually draw tens of thousands of tourists and homeowners from around the nation to their beaches of crystal white sands.
Local residents enjoy the southern charm of Alabama beaches, and food and entertainment amenities that feed a thriving tourist destination. For Mike Powell and his wife Lisa their move to Gulf Shores from Georgia should have allowed them the peaceful and quiet lifestyle they desired with the ability to stay active and enjoy their close knit community, but these days their lives are anything but quiet.
When the couple first moved to Gulf Shores the sound from their front porch was near silence. For just over the last year, they would sit outside and enjoy the sounds of nature. Now, all they hear is the annoyingly distinct sound of traffic from the neighboring Foley Beach Expressway.
Why the drastic change? Behind their house is a nearly 200 acre piece of undeveloped property with trees and land that previously served as a natural barrier for sound. Land that has now begun to be cleared with parts removed for what some locals are calling the #BridgeToNoWhere — a second fly-over bridge just shy of a mile and a half from the current Foley Beach Express Toll-Road. The existing and now proposed bridge would be built over the small canal leading from Gulf Shores to the beaches. At the time the bridge was first proposed in 2015-2016, the Powell‘s portion of neighborhood didn’t even exist. When state officials tabled the plan, it became a moot point to those in the area, something that would have been of no concern to future homebuyers like the Powell’s and the potential buyers of the next 100 houses that are currently waiting to be built. Alas in the dark of night or so it seems the plan was not only been resurrected, it has been brought back to life and fast-tracked with the new residents and potential residents about to be blindsided.
Which is exactly what happened on Dec. 04, 2017. Powell was driving on the Foley Beach Express Way when he spotted the white Alabama Department of Transportation (ALDOT) truck coming from a new clearing in the undeveloped property described above. He pulled into the area and stopped the driver to ask what was going on.
“We’re building a bridge,” the workers told him. When he mentioned that there’s another
bridge down the road, they said “no, no, no. It’s going to be a new bridge.”
Imagine Powell‘s surprise as he was told they were making way for that new bridge, practically in his backyard. More accurately, the bridge will be approximately 1/2 mile from his driveway and 1/4 from his neighbors.
“We were going to have a City Council meeting about the schools that afternoon in front of the mayor and the staff, and I went and rushed and got these pictures developed and brought them before the board,” Powell said referring to a handful of photos he had from that day on his cell phone. “That’s when we were told by the mayor and the staff that they were planning a bridge.”
It was the first time it was publicly talked about since 2016. There was no notice from the state or city officials. No hearings for public input, the work had already begun.
A few weeks later Mike and Lisa met with Mark Ackerman, Public Works Director for the City of Gulf Shores, to get a better idea what the city was planning to build.
“He personally took us in his vehicle and showed us where this [new bridge]was going to go down Foley Beach Expressway and come up back around County Road 4. But at that time he was saying there was just going to be this little bridge going up over our property about eight-nine feet high, because there were some wetlands there,” explained Powell.
That made sense to the Powell‘s, so they left it alone, but they continued to hear more and more noises. Worried about the increasing sound levels, Powell reached out to ALDOT and in early January drove up to Mobile to meet with regional staffers Edwin Perry the regions Pre-Construction Engineer and Vincent Beebe the Assistant Region Pre-Construction Engineer, who are heading up the project. The pair took Powell to a conference room showing him map based design of the proposed bridge, looking down at them Powell noticed a significant problem – his neighborhood wasn’t even on the map. The property images the state had been using were from 2015. They hadn’t been updated when the project was revived towards the end of 2017.
“When we got there to the Mobile office they had a table with the plans all out. Not a model, but a map, like a Google map,” explained Powell. “And I go, ‘where are our houses?’ Our part of the subdivision wasn’t there yet. So I asked them, ‘have you been to our subdivision?’ They responded, ‘no.'”
Those working on the project in Mobile had failed to realize nearly 250 houses had been built in the area beside where they were planning to put their bridge. At that time no one overseeing the project had even been out to visit the site; it’s unclear if that has changed.
“So I asked them how big this was going to be and what sort of volume of traffic they expected, and they couldn’t even answer that question,” Lisa weighed-in. “‘We’re not really sure’,” they told her.
Since that time, Powell and his wife have had endless questions about the project set to destroy the peaceful life they once enjoyed. The problem? Answers have been hard to come by and when they can get them, they keep changing. First, they were told the bridge would be an evacuation route (this has since changed and the purpose has been designated as a way to ease Highway 59 traffic congestion). During this meeting the Powell‘s were told that there were no plans to mitigate the sound related to the bridge and road traffic which had already begun.
When they questioned the lack of notice for the project they were informed the residents in the vicinity of their neighborhood, which back in 2015 used to be the only housing in the area, were allegedly given brochures that same year.
In a follow up meeting between residents and Mark Ackerman of the city in early March 2018, Ackerman went so far as to say the residents had a responsibility to call and check on ongoing projects before buying property, only to be surprised when the Powell’s were able to name a woman at the city who works for him that they had spoken to who did not disclose the possibility of the bridge. Powell can’t help but wonder, who’s going to notify the new neighbors still coming into the neighborhood what’s going on?
When talking to Powell and others in the area about the bridge it would be hard to miss the distinct sound of disappointment that comes from the feeling that the city and state officials pushing this bridge are missing or forgetting their small town’s motto, “Small Town. Big Beach.” It’s that small town feel that will be lost to those living in the area if suddenly theres a bridge in their back yard. The distinct, “thump, thump, thumping” sound of cars on the flyover breaking the tranquil environment that their small town once guaranteed.
Of the bridge project Powell is clear in the sentiment he and his neighbors share, “We don’t want it. If it has to be built keep it away from our houses. We don’t want to have to hear it or see it.”
It’s clear ALDOT and the city have failed this neighborhood. Residents like Powell don’t know moving forward whether or not to trust those involved with and pushing the project. What’s left to be seen is with the proponents of the new bridge try and work with residents about their concerns on sound, traffic and other ramifications of the bridge, or if they’re simply going to continue to manipulate the situation to what they want.