Caution Flag Raised for Proposed Motor Sports Park in Alabama

Caution Flag Raised for Proposed Motor Sports Park in Alabama

Conservation groups are hoping to cause a developer to relocate a planned Dale Earnhardt, Jr.-affiliated racetrack and Motor Sports Park on 2,600 acres near Mobile, Alabama, reports the Wildlife Management Institute. The groups, including the Mobile Bay Audubon Society, Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC), Mobile Baykeeper and the Mobile Bay Sierra Club, are not opposed to the planned development, they just don't want it located on an area rich in wetlands beneficial to wildlife. The proposed park is to be located on a site that is approximately 25 percent wetlands and has several high-quality streams.

SELC attorney Bill Sapp wrote to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) advising that the first criterion in federal Clean Water Act guidelines provides that any discharge into wetlands is prohibited if there is a less environmentally damaging practicable alternative to the proposed project. The conservation groups claim there are better areas for the project. However, Gulf Coast Entertainment, LLC, the project developer and promoter, claims it cannot find those areas. In fact, better sites have been located, but the developer was unable to get support from affected citizens and their elected officials.

Due to much criticism by conservation groups and government agencies, the Mobile District Corps of Engineers told the developer that an environmental impact statement (EIS) must be prepared to explain the huge proposal and its impacts. Not wanting to prepare the required document, Gulf Coast Entertainment decided to reduce the scope of its plans, in hopes of avoiding preparation of the requisite EIS, the need for which project opponents adamantly demand, so that impacts can be detailed and there can be opportunity for public review and comment prior to any authorizations decision by the Corps. The revised plans by Gulf Coast Entertainment propose a 0.7-mile, 75,000-seat NASCAR racetrack (which could eventually be expanded to 125,000 seats), a 3-mile racecar course, a KART track, a motor home and RV park, residential complex, retail shopping complex, Race City entertainment district, and an industrial park dedicated to motor sports-related development. ?

Casi Calloway, Director of Mobile Baykeeper, explained that the proposed motor sports park would not simply be a passive park where people visited for the day and then left. If built, it would be a substantial, growing residential community. The RV park alone is slated for 5,000 spaces and proposed to be available 365 days a year. It has been projected that there could be considerably more than 5,000 people on the grounds at any given time. And on race days, there could be more than 125,000 people on site. Given only 24 percent of cities in Alabama have populations of 5,000 people or more, the project opponents claim that the sports park, in fact, could become one of the larger cities in the state. Further argued by conservationists is that the project's inevitable direct and indirect environmental impacts are precisely why an EIS is imperative. The Corps has documented direct impacts of the revised project proposal, including the destruction of 87 wetland acres, 3,395 linear feet of streams and a valuable upland long-leaf pine ecosystem. ?

Although the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has not yet completed a required site analysis, the threatened gopher tortoise and other threatened and endangered species are believed to live on or near the 2,600-acre site. David Underhill, Chair of Mobile Bay Sierra Club, explained that the site is a part of the Mobile Bay National Estuary, which was established in 1996 by Alabama and the federal government. The estuary delta has more than 50 rare and endangered plants and animal species. ?

The conservation organizations point out that the Corps should have the foresight and an obligation to consider not only site impacts, but the insidious potential of piecemeal fragmentation of such sensitive systems as the Mobile Bay National Estuary. A first step in those regards, they contend, would be requiring the federally mandated EIS for the proposed park.

July 14, 2008