Post-Katrina, an Alabama town fights to keep its roots

Only 12 miles from downtown Mobile, Ala., Bayou La Batre is a living Gulf Coast anachronism.

While most of today's Gulf Coast is about surfing and beachwear, the day here starts with shrimpers loading ice and supplies for their trips to the fishing grounds.

Before hurricane Katrina, that was scheduled to change. As the town suffered downturns in its anchor industries – fishing and boatbuilding – welders and captains watched as developers prepared to turn the old Shell Belt Road into a themed development featuring a "historic fishing resort" that would leave little room for actual fishermen.

But following last year's hurricanes, Bayou La Batre experienced a reckoning. As development pressure eased off and the economy improved, downtrodden locals saw a glimpse of salvation even amid the destruction: By respecting the bayou's gritty past, they could maybe save their traditional wharf jobs. The answer was for the town to shape development that would fit the working waterfront.

The plight of this Cajun fishing village settled by the French in 1786 has become a test of whether it's possible for a Gulf Coast town with few land-use regulations to remain true to its roots.

"There's no other land like Bayou La Batre left now, which means they are in a particularly vulnerable situation," says Jack Luft, a coastal planner on Sanibel Island, Fla. "This may be their last chance."

For 100 years, Bayou La Batre at just 4.1 square miles "was a well-kept secret," says Stan Wright, the town's oyster-shucking mayor. Today, the bayou gently winds from the Mississippi Sound with some 800 working shrimpers and tenders squeezed from bow to stern.

In the past, even if developers had found it, they hardly would have touched a smelly fishing village with a 10-foot fishing pole. But it has become attractive to them because of market forces: the skyrocketing prices along the Gulf Coast and relatively cheap industrial land on the bayou.

In early 2005, developer Tim James, son of former Alabama Governor Fob James, considered buying 10 plots of land along Shell Belt Road. His goal was to create a historic fishing resort with high-end, high-rise condos along the waterfront and a bayou retreat with expansive views of the Gulf from Lightning Point. The $200 million plan included road repairs and a new water plant.

The town of 1,700 hemmed and hawed for several months over whether to adopt the plan. But officials knew they would have to go along eventually since landowners were willing to sell and the town had few rules that controlled development.

The bayou, many residents feared, would become similar to Orange Beach, Ala., where high-rise condos had squeezed the natives out in favor of time-shares and party docks.

"We knew once development came, it would kill us," says Alvin Johnson, a local shrimper.

Instead, Katrina came, forcing an 18-foot storm surge up the bayou, leaving shrimp boats in trees. After the storm, came a rise in insurance premiums causing Mr. James to nix his plan. He offered a deal without the road and water improvements.

But the town's circumstances changed, too. A $25 million federal grant would now cover the costs of a new water plant. Another grant for $7 million would enable more than 100 homes to be rebuilt.

The fishing village hired a progressive planning think tank, the Urban Land Institute, for some guidance.

The Institute came back to the city council in September with a new vision: a segregated waterfront preserving industrial aspects up in the bayou and leaving the area closer to the bayou's mouth for sport fishermen and kayakers. Instead of high-rise development, more rustic, low-impact properties could be built.

The report said the town should not sell Lightning Point to James. On Oct. 2 the city council informed him that it would not sell the land. Officials are now taking bids and hope to decide who can lease the land by next year.

Based on the report, Mayor Wright envisions a newly dredged safe harbor for sport fishermen and recreational boaters, with a ring of shops and condominiums costing $105 million. Other residents want to offer fishing excursions – on commercial fishing boats.

"People here realize there's an opportunity now that hasn't existed before and that won't exist in the near future," says Pete Barber, president of the Alabama Seafood Association and a local seafood dealer.

But without new land-use ordinances that would limit private property rights, Bayou La Batre may not be able to stop the new construction, experts say. What may help the town's cause is for developers to get a different perspective, some say.

"When you come across a place that isn't ... trying to present itself as something special, it just is what it is, that strikes a chord for some people and they wonder, 'How can we hold onto this?' " says Mr. Luft. "That's what makes this issue all the more striking because you're seeing so many themed environments that somehow are unsatisfying."

Bob Hoyt of California agrees. He visited the bayou recently for the first time, snapping pictures of the shrimp boats.

"I saw "Forrest Gump" and loved it, so I had to come and see it for myself," he says, referring to the film that was in part set in Bayou La Batre. "There aren't many places like this around anymore. It feels unique."

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