Baldwin County farming families try to preserve their way of life as the region grows
Baldwin County is one of the fastest-growing metropolitan areas in the country. It’s also considered the fastest-growing county in Alabama. The 2020 U.S Census data shows Baldwin’s population has jumped by over twenty seven percent since 2010. That means over two hundred more residents call Baldwin County home. This means plenty of growing pains for the people who live along Alabama’s Eastern Shore. APR spoke with some Baldwin County residents who remember the good old days, and how they’re dealing with a changing world…
“It means everything. We have fireflies out here. I learned about constellations looking at the stars,” recalled Elizabeth Wilson. She grew up before Baldwin County became the retirement Mecca it is now.
“When you are a teenager, you want to grow up and get away. I left. I went away for four years to Dallas. And as soon as I left, I just wanted to come back home,” said Wilson. “
Her family has farmed around Fairhope for four generations, and her grandfather owns forty acres next to a proposed development called Clay Farms. It just produced its last crop of soybeans and townhouses are about to take its place. Terracore Development Services purchased the nearly twenty acres and has plans to build one hundred and forty homes. Neighbors know that Fairhope is moving their way. They say they have put their lives into the land and their quiet neighborhood. Elizabeth Wilson says she and her neighbors don’t want to see it destroyed.
“We started farming on Lawrence Road in the fifties. My whole life there's always been here,” Wilson contend. “Our farm was just right out the front door where they would farm wheat and hay. When we weren't in school, we’d go out there and help out and work in the field. It means everything to me. It’s where I grew up. Our family, we don't move. We settled here and we stay here.”
The issue Wilson and longtime Baldwin County residents are fighting is demand for space. Newcomers need a place to live and neighborhoods are springing up where farms used to be. Most of this land outside of Fairhope and other towns in Baldwin County is unzoned with few rules and regulations. This leaves neighbors with no voice and developers free to build whatever they want. Developers say they are trying to meet the housing demand. People like Elizabeth Wilson and her family are seeing what’s being lost...
On rural Lawrence Road outside of Fairhope, quail feed in the fields, and neighbors moved here for the quiet country lifestyle. Some remember when the roads were dirt and phone service was by party line.
“All of the land was divided up into 40 acres, a quarter of a mile square,” Elizabeth’s grandfather, who asked that we not use his name. He was only eight years old when he started driving a tractor on his dad’s farm. He farmed all of his life and recently drove a tractor on their land one more time for his 90th birthday.
“We had a small dairy and raised potatoes,” Wilson’s grandfather recalled. “Everybody around here had a dairy. They had about seven dairies right here in this area. We did their hay bailing for them. They would always plant an acre of potatoes for their cash. And we would dig their potatoes because we had the machinery.”
The farmland around Fairhope is unzoned, which is what many rural landowners wanted. But as these farmers pass on, their children often sell the land and developers snatch it up. Without the rules and regulations of zoning, they are free to build whatever they want.
“The challenge, when you see this development pressure, is that it's the perfect environment for development. There are less rules, less regulations,” said Hunter Simmons. He sees this a lot as Fairhope’s planning and zoning manager. “So, in general, when you have rural areas that are seeing development pressure, especially when you go into unzoned areas, the farm lands, the larger lots, and rural areas, they aren’t comfortable with zoning because it's somebody telling them what to do with their land.
Simmons calls the unzoned 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 how it develops.
“If they get behind zoning and what they want their neighborhoods and communities to look like, then the zoning can reflect that,” Simmons observed. “Otherwise it might be 10 years down the road, but the people that moved there are going to bring their ideas of what it's going to look like. If you consider it a vote, there are more votes for their side. And then the people that may have lived there for generations. That becomes a challenge.”
It may already be too late for the Lawrence Road development, but homeowners are doing what they can to fight the townhomes, hoping for something smaller. Yard signs that read “Save Lawrence Road” and “It’s picture-perfect” line the roads, and there is a photo spot set up with hay bales and flowers. Neighbors say the developer isn’t responding to their questions. He also refused requests for an interview. Without zoning, residents don’t have a voice.
“When you put a child with autism on a horse, it lowers their blood pressure and settles their vestibular system down,” says Tanya Halterman, of Willow Creek Equestrian Center.
Tanya’s property is also two lots down from the proposed townhomes. It’s on the low point on her side of Lawrence Road and water runoff from surrounding properties drains onto her 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 the safety and security because you see my kids out here running in the yard. I don't think twice about them walking out here to pet the cow or grab a horse,” said Halterman. “With 150 rental townhouses so close that I can stand here and look at them. I'm concerned about people wandering over, you know.”
Traffic on the small road and strains on infrastructure are also concerns. Several neighbors say they hope other unzoned areas learn from what is happening on Lawrence Road. Elizabeth Wilson is taking action to fight the development. She helped start Proposed Planning District 37 with other concerned citizens to establish planning and zoning in several areas outside the city limits of Fairhope.
“And essentially, It takes one 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 is my job to go door to door and collect signatures and educate the community about how zoning would help prevent this in the future.”
The City of Fairhope is currently having community land use meetings for public input for its Comprehensive Land Use Plan to address 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-- The community meetings will be held across Fairhope through March. Residents can also submit their feedback to www.PlanFairhope.com.