Fearing the loss of both their livelihood and their way of life, residents of Bayou La Baitre, Alabama banded together earlier this summer and scuttled a city ordinance crafted to promote eco-tourism.
Located along the Gulf Coast, a few miles southwest of Mobile, Bayou La Baitre is a fishing village with a vibrant seafood-processing industry. The city of 2,500 souls has survived Hurricane Catrina and other unpleasant visitors from the tropics. But a 200-page zoning proposal developed by the city’s planning commission with assistance from the Southeast Alabama Regional Planning Commission (SARPC) and environmental groups triggered a storm of protest that sent the city’s mayor and his supporters running for cover.
The zoning proposal was widely seen as hostile to longstanding seafood and shipbuilding industries which, opponents feared, would be displaced by eco-tourism businesses such as kayak and canoe rentals and outings to view migratory birds. Local business owners also were upset over language in the proposed ordinance that, they said, would affect where their businesses could operate if they had to be rebuilt or ownership changed hands.
“Nothing but a Mudhole”
Taking to social media, opponents of the ordinance spread the word and turned the tables on Mayor Terry Downey and the SARPC. Mayor Downey did himself, and the proposed ordinance, no favors when, in defending the proposal in April, he referred to Bayou La Baitre as “nothing but a mudhole” (Lagniappe Weekly, June 13). Outraged, residents of the “mudhole” stormed a May 24 city council meeting, with several of them demanding that Mayor Downey step down (he refused). But they didn’t walk away empty-handed. Downey and the city council voted unanimously to scrap the ordinance in toto, handing grassroots activists a huge victory.
While a revised version of the zoning proposal could be drawn up, the fierce opposition the original proposal encountered will give pause to city officials. The rise and fall of the proposal show just how out of touch with ordinary citizens organizations like the SARPC can be. Like the Bayou La Baitre City Council, members of the SARPC were caught completely off guard when their grandiose scheme to transform a fishing village into a green theme park provoked outrage.
The proposal was two years in the making and enjoyed the support not just of the SARPC but also of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). NOAA was to provide a hefty federal grant to the SARPC to help implement the Bayou La Baitre ordinance.
Much credit for the ordinance’s demise goes to City Councilman Henry Barnes. He spearheaded local opposition to the ordinance and also discovered that some of the language buried in the proposal’s 200 pages was taken word for word from the United Nations’ Agenda 21.
Readers may recognize Bayou La Baitre from the 1994 movie “Forrest Gump,” which was based on the book by the same name. Bayou La Baitre was the hometown of the fictional character Forrest Gump. But in the movie, Beaufort, South Carolina doubled for the Alabama town. Hollywood fakery aside, Bayou La Baitre’s victory over the green ordinance was authentic, and the coastal town shows how the little guys and gals can come together and defeat powerful interests.