Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Conservationists Earn a Hollow "Victory" in Gulf State Park Case

Alabama conservationists appeared to have won a surprising verdict recently when the state Supreme Court blocked plans by the Bob Riley administration to build a luxury resort hotel at Gulf State Park.

But the Republican-dominated high court left a clear path for Riley to get the hotel built, meaning any victory for conservationists might be short lived.

That is one of the key findings in "Riley's Raid for the Rich on Gulf State Park Beach Continues," a major investigative report at Locust Fork News-Journal.

Glynn Wilson and yours truly teamed up to show that Riley still has plans to use state land for a privately run Ritz Carlton-style hotel. And the Alabama Supreme Court, while temporarily blocking the plan, cleared the way for the governor and his cronies to eventually get their way. And it might not take long.

The report spotlights several themes that have become familiar since Riley took office in 2002. These include:

* Efforts to favor and enrich Riley supporters, at the expense of the general public;

* A pliant and lackluster mainstream press, which tends to accept Team Riley's version of events without asking hard questions;

* A GOP-dominated court system that tends to ignore legal precedent by favoring Riley and his corporate buddies--even when judges appear to vote against them.

Who are some of Riley's supporters who stand to benefit from the Gulf State Park hotel? No. 1 on the list is Auburn University, which would lease the land and help operate the facility. And who helped get Auburn involved, pushing the project into the "luxury" category? According to depositions filed in the case, it was none other than Dr. Susan Hubbard, an Auburn faculty member who just happens to be the wife of Alabama Rep. Mike Hubbard (R-Auburn). Hubbard happens to be chair of the Alabama Republican Party and one of Bob Riley's staunchest political allies.

What about the somnolent Alabama press? It reported the following about Hurricane Ivan and its impact on Gulf State Park:

After the old lodge was wrecked beyond repair, Gov. Bob Riley’s administration came up with a plan to build an upscale park hotel in a partnership between Auburn University and Atlanta-based West Paces Hotel Group.

Court documents, however, show Riley had plans for the luxury hotel long before Ivan hit.

As for the Alabama Supreme Court, records show that it backs Riley even when it appears to be voting against him.

Press reports focused on one aspect of the recent Gulf State Park ruling, which blocked Riley's plans--for now. But the press did not show how the Supreme Court left a clear path for Riley, or a future governor, to get the hotel built.

How did it happen?

A trial court in Montgomery had ruled against the Riley plan on five grounds, saying it violated three state laws and two provisions of the Alabama Constitution. But the Alabama Supreme Court overruled the trial court on four of the five grounds.

The high court found that the Riley plan did violate the State Park Concession Act because it involves a lease for a term greater than six or 12 years. But the Supreme Court found for Riley on every other point.

The Supremes ruled that the Riley plan:

* Did not have to comply with the competitive bid provisions of the State Land Sales Act;

* Did not have to consider the per-capita income and average family income of Alabamians, as provided by the Gulf State Park Improvement Act;

* Did not violate Section 93 of the Alabama Constitution by creating a state interest in private enterprise or by engaging in works of internal improvements or the lending of money or credit without specific constitutional authority;

* Did not have to comply with Section 213.32 of the Alabama Constitution, which requires that any facility constructed on property at Gulf State Park be operated exclusively by employees of the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.

Based on the Alabama Supreme Court ruling, the only thing standing between the Riley administration and the luxury hotel is the State Park Concession Act. If the state legislature changes the act to allow a 70-year lease that Riley seeks, the hotel project could be a go.

At first glance, the Supreme Court ruling appeared to be a victory for those who want to protect Gulf State Park from private enterprise. But a closer look shows that the Republican-dominated court brought the Riley administration to the edge of victory.

Before the Supreme Court ruling, the Riley plan had to clear five legal hurdles. Now it only has to clear one.


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