Mayor talks condos and Orange Beach’s growing pains, progress in wide-ranging Facebook Live interview

August 24, 2018
Mayor Facebook Live interview screenshot

In a candid, straight-talking Facebook Live interview led my musician and Orange Beach resident Jack Robertson on Thursday, August 23, Mayor Tony Kennon answered a wide range of questions from condo heights and traffic solutions to public safety and even keeping McDonald's open past 2 a.m.  

From tongue-in-cheek to deep-rooted discussion, here is a snippet of the interview covering condo heights and density. For the full interview, visit the mayor’s Facebook page.

Jack Robertson: How did the condos go from 14 stories to 25 stories. Did you do that?

Mayor Tony Kennon: It’s a great story. I did not do that. In 2005 there were complaints about the condos essentially forming a wall and blocking the view of the beach. The condos at that time had no restrictions on how wide they could be, they could go for a 1000 feet and they went all the way to within 10 feet of the boundary line, so it’s a 10-foot setback. ... What we came back with was increasing the height to 20 stories and narrowing the building to a maximum of 300 feet but increasing the setback so you have view corridors between. So you would have tall, skinny buildings spread farther apart. We then wanted to get rid of all of the asphalt parking lots so at 20 stories of residential they could go up another five stories to put the parking deck underneath; the building is moved back and we have no asphalt parking lots because we had terrible drainage problems on the beach road. So now we have the ability to retain the water on that site. Then across the street on the north side we dropped the buildings to a maximum height of only five stories ... and we backed them up off the road for the front setback so that we didn’t have the canyon effect where you had two tall buildings right down the road. Like if you go to Panama City and you’re riding down the beach road, two structures go right up at the road. We didn’t want that, so we spread them out so we don’t have that and I think it looks much better in that fashion.

Jack Robertson: Yeah. You’ve got to be able to see the beach. I was unaware that the 14 stories could … block the property. What about the density? What have y’all done for the density? Even though it says it’s 25 stories could you do something to make less people in there or something?

Mayor Kennon: If we … made a blanket reduction across the board, everywhere on the beach, that might fly legally. It would be a legal challenge. I don’t know that we want to do that. It is always a point that can be discussed. The density is 42 units per acre in BR-2 or condo zoning but so much of that depends on the shape of the lot. You can’t always get 42. What we’ve done to prevent density or increased numbers here in Orange Beach is since I took office we have not up-zoned a single piece of property. So we didn’t take a residential piece and zone it and make it condo. We have denied any application to do anything of that nature and that has kept, for the most part, the number of condos being built to only the parcels that were already zoned condominium way back when. So let’s take for example the new Brett/Robinson buildings. Every one of those are being built on property that was zoned condominium way back. You can’t change that zoning because it would be a taking. You would be sued and lose a gazillion dollars.

Jack: So you’re telling me if someone were to buy a parcel of property for $40 million and then you say, “Forget it, we’re going down to 10 stories. I want to take care of my citizens of Orange Beach.” So that property owner could say, “No. You’re not. I’m suing the city.” He’s probably going to win and get money too.”

Mayor Kennon: That’s right.

Jack: Because it’s already zoned for that and he’s paid the money for that. What about the houses and stuff across the street from the beach. How many of them are wanting to be zoned for condos? How many of those have you approved?

Mayor Kennon: Zero. Since I’ve been mayor, no property that was residential has been zoned for condos. We made that decision a long time ago; we were not up-zoning to increase density anywhere in the City of Orange Beach and we’ve stuck to that except for one place. That was the piece of property where the Hampton Inn is; we felt like there needed to be a hotel there and we up-zoned that to allow for a hotel. It was OK with us because it was 8 stories as opposed to 25 stories.

Jack: Well, all right. OK. Let me ask you this. Why can’t the city go in there and buy some of these vacant lots so that locals and tourists can use them? Have y’all tried doing that?

Mayor Kennon: If you look at the prices right now. It’s $35,000 to $40,000 a linear foot, so a 100-foot piece of property on the beach is a $4 million expense. You need to have 400 to 500 feet to have a beachfront so you’re looking at $20 million. Then you’ve got to spend the money to do the parking lot and the improvements. I don’t think we want to spend that much money on beachfront because we have east Perdido Pass on the other side of the bridge. There is a huge piece of state park property so we’re going to petition them to allow us to improve that shell parking lot, make it much bigger, put a lot more parking on there, put new boardwalks. Make it an easier access to the beach and make that more conducive to being an accessible family-friendly beach. So we think that’s a much better way to accomplish that for local folks.     

For the full interview, visit the mayor’s Facebook page.