Plan to encourage working waterfronts could revitalize area

By: Melissa Schneider / Published: Feb 08,  2012

Andy Bauer first heard about working waterfronts at a workshop the Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant Consortium held in 2010. The concept of working to protect, preserve and enhance traditional waterfront areas, areas that are home to water-dependent businesses, was new to Bauer, who is the director of planning and zoning for Gulf Shores, Alabama.

Since then, Bauer has been working with the Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant and the Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant Legal Program to research ways to encourage the return of water-dependent businesses along the Intracoastal Waterway.

Because of this work, the Gulf Shores Planning Commission recently approved a new overlay district, the Historic Downtown Overlay District. An overlay district is a layer of zoning regulations that is added to the existing zoning regulations. Overlay districts can further restrict or lessen zoning restrictions.

The Historic Downtown Overlay District, which is expected to go before the City Council in the coming weeks, would set the framework for a downtown neighborhood district. It would allow for the re-establishment of water-dependent businesses—boatyards, marinas, seafood processors—that historically were part of the waterfront. Those uses are not allowed now, and the overlay encourages them.

“Before tourism, the Gulf Shores economy was more dependent on waterfront businesses,” Bauer said.

Plans for the district may include pedestrian pathways on the north and south sides of the waterway that would not only allow people to walk along the waterfront and from business to business, but would permit some type of seafood market or seafood exchange. In a seafood exchange, fishermen can post what they have caught that day on the Internet, and customers can meet them at the dock to buy the catch.

The Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant Legal Program offered research assistance on this zoning project.  It identified regulations for seafood markets and exchanges and potential issues and challenges with getting them started. The program also identified some of the legalities of creating a pedestrian pathway, and it provided examples of language used in other cities regarding working waterfronts in regulations.

“We were happy to support Gulf Shores’ efforts to preserve public access and the historic character of the Intracoastal Waterway,” Niki Pace, research counsel for the Legal Program, said.

Consultants from Watkins, Acy, Strunk Design also were part of the project.

In the end, the city would eventually like to see the Intracoastal Waterway become a second coast—one that is unique and different from Alabama’s famous beaches.

“The city is very excited to get these regulations adopted and go through with getting this area redeveloped,” Bauer said.

Jody Thompson and Marie Dyson with the Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant Consortium and Auburn University helped facilitate this project with Gulf Shores. 

 “Vital working waterfronts are important to the cultural and historic fabric of the Alabama coast,” Thompson said.

The Historic Downtown Overlay District is strategic and will serve as a model for other communities desiring to take steps to protect and preserve working waterfronts and encourage economic development and waterfront access, Dyson said.

“Gulf Shores should be commended for its vision,” she said.


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