• Gulf of Mexico
Geographic Scope
  • City
  • Small (< 20,000)
  • Urban (> 2,000 people per square mile)
Governance Structure
  • Hybrid
  • Economic development
  • Hazards of sea level rise, erosion, flooding
  • Loss or preservation of heritage (cultural, maritime, etc.)
  • Decline in industrial activity and need to redevelop/adapt waterfront for new uses
Tools Waterfront Uses
  • Public access (docks/wharfs/beach/park)
  • Marina/drystack
  • Boat ramp/lift
  • Boat repair
  • Recreational fishing
  • Coastal tourism
  • Market (local seafood, produce, etc.)
  • Restaurant accessible by water


Case Study
Creating a Waterway Village overlay zone to promote community resilience, improve public access, and preserve waterfront heritage in Gulf Shores, Alabama

Alabama, Baldwin County, Gulf of Mexico, City of Gulf Shores



Located in the central Gulf of Mexico, Gulf Shores, Alabama has experienced significant challenges in recent years as the community works to recover from damaging hurricane and oil spill impacts on its beaches. In the wake of these disasters, Gulf Shores recognized the need to diversify the local economy. Through the development of a plan for a historic downtown overlay district called Waterway Village, the City seeks to spark a year-round economic driver that is less impacted by coastal hazards and improves community resilience. The Waterway Village overlay district is intended to improve access to the waterfront of the Intracoastal Waterway, and allow for the re-establishment of certain types of water-dependent businesses that historically were part of the waterfront. Leadership and investment from the City have been central to the district’s initiation, and long-term success hinges on public and private investment and partnerships. Analysis has been conducted of legal issues that present barriers to the district and approaches are being considered that will enable the implementation of the overlay district to proceed.


The approaches used in Gulf Shores are particularly transferable to communities with working waterfronts along the Intracoastal Waterway. Local ordinance strategies such as the creation of overlay zoning districts, and form-based codes may not be present in all communities and must be approved by the local or regional land-use authority.

Best Practices

Full Case Study Description

"Before tourism, the Gulf Shores economy was more dependent on waterfront businesses," explains Andy Bauer, Planning Director, City of Gulf Shores, AL.
This fact spurred the City of Gulf Shores (  to create a historic downtown overlay district called Waterway Village that would improve access to the waterfront of the Intracoastal Waterway, and allow for the re-establishment of certain types of water-dependent businesses that historically were part of the waterfront. Most traditional waterfront uses had been prohibited through zoning changes over the years, and the new overlay provides an option for them once again.
Located in the central Gulf of Mexico, Gulf Shores has experienced significant challenges in recent years, as the community works to recover from damaging hurricane and oil spill impacts on its beaches. While hurricane damage is more routine, the City could not anticipate the extensive oil spill impacts and its eyes were opened to the community’s vulnerabilities. In the wake of these disasters, the City recognized the critical need to diversify the local economy. Through the development plan for the Waterway Village district, the City seeks to spark a year-round economic driver that operates in any weather and even in the event of a natural or human-caused disaster. Due to the development’s location along the more protected Intracoastal Waterway, it is less exposed to the extreme conditions of the Gulf, and designed to buffer major storm impacts. Moving this economic engine away from the beach is therefore a community resilience strategy.
Gulf Shores was settled as a small fishing village in the 1850s. From the 1850s to the 1980s, the waterfront of the Intracoastal Waterway served as the City’s historic center and was home to shrimping boats, oyster docks, and seafood processing plants. The Intracoastal Waterway was built by the Army Corps of Engineers in the 1930s as a shipping channel, and its primary purpose was then, and is now, navigation.
In 1979, Hurricane Frederic hit the Gulf Shores coastline. As is sometimes the case in hurricane-prone areas, real estate development took place in the wake of the storm damage. This ushered in Gulf Shore’s transition toward tourism and a development boom along the beachfront and away from the waterfront of the Intracoastal Waterway. Since that time, the City’s economy became dependent on its draw as a seasonal beach destination, and the working waterfront industries have disappeared, with the last seafood processing plant closing in 2000.
Currently the waterfront of the Gulf Shores Intracoastal Waterway is undeveloped or home to the abandoned relics of its past industrial uses. The residential development in the area is not along the waterfront, and the area is used primarily for recreational boating access to the Intracoastal as the “interstate to the Gulf.”
The Waterway Village overlay zoning district includes 130 acres of land on both sides of the Intracoastal waterway. The district lays the groundwork to create the City’s downtown, improve access to the Intracoastal waterfront, and restore its most historic area with development related to the City’s tradition as a working waterfront. New development is anticipated to include seafood restaurants and a market, as well as entertainment and education venues, retail shops, and diverse housing. The Waterway Village seeks to revitalize the Intracoastal waterfront, and increase its use by both residents and visitors. The development is unlikely to see a return to the industrial uses in of the past, such as seafood processing plants or a major fishing fleet, as the commercial fishing industry has changed significantly in the northern Gulf of Mexico. The City, however, intends future development phases to include and encourage water-dependent uses, such as commercial and recreational fishing, that are compatible with the community’s emerging vision for a historic downtown, mixed-use development center that recognizes the working waterfront heritage of the community.
Actions Taken & Approaches Used
Gulf Shores is the first coastal community in Alabama to adopt a local ordinance (see section 10-9) to preserve waterfront heritage and it can serve as a model for other communities.
The initial concept for creating a waterfront development plan on the Intracoastal Waterway was sparked through the City’s cooperation with Mississippi/Alabama Sea Grant’s Outreach Program , and the Program’s legal outreach specialists (see article ). City Planning Director Andy Bauer attended a 2010 workshop on the topic hosted by the Sea Grant Outreach Program. Following the workshop, at the request of the City, Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant’s legal specialists led research into regulatory questions focusing on the development of a seafood market and/or exchange, and also on the creation of a pedestrian greenway along the Intracoastal waterfront. The partnership later expanded to include work with the Alabama Working Waterfront Coalition.
As City officials began to consider approaches to redeveloping the Intracoastal waterfront, their vision focused on the creation of a downtown center for year-round residents to enhance their sense of community and complement the beachfront tourist-related uses. Before initiating planning efforts, the City began by engaging the community to identify local needs and interests. The process went smoothly and started by meeting 15 major property owners in the target area to understand their perspectives. Their vision focused on redevelopment that would include markets, retail, restaurants, fishing opportunities, improved streetscapes and access, which included street connections, parking, waterfront greenway, walkways, and ferry services across the Intracoastal Waterway. The City developed an initial concept plan incorporating owners’ input that was supported by the owners. As plans evolved, public hearings were held. While there was support overall, several property owners expressed concern about private property rights and fear of eminent domain. Ultimately, the Planning Committee made a recommendation to the City Council to support the overlay district proposal and the Council voted to approved it.
Planning for the overlay district began with recognizing the area’s existing assets and challenges. The gridded street pattern was quickly identified as an asset lending itself to the development of an inter-connected, walkable, downtown employing form based codes. This focus on linkages would help to address the spatial divide that exists in the area. To the east and west of the district are large single-family residential areas divided by a highway. A pedestrian greenway with interpretive signage along the Intracoastal waterfront was envisioned as an approach to reconnect these two neighborhoods.  
The area’s pre-existing zoning posed a challenge to recognizing the community’s waterfront heritage. Existing zoning ordinances did not allow for traditional waterfront uses such as a seafood market, fishing piers, etc. The new district provides the option for these through the application of a conditional use permit. The seafood market or seafood exchange concept in particular, has generated high interest. In a seafood exchange, fishing boats could dock at Waterway Village, and sell direct to customers and attract tourists. While other regulatory issues will need to be addressed before some of these proposed uses (such as the greenway and seafood market) can be realized, the ordinance language helps to set the stage for them.   
To initiate the redevelopment, the City of Gulf Shores has made significant investments of staff and financial resources. Beyond the technical support of Planning Department, the City also committed funds to purchase a lot for redevelopment for centralized parking, to enable visitors to “park-once” or leave their cars and walk throughout the area. The Public Works Department also provided oversight for construction work, and implementation of a master stormwater management plan for the district. Leadership from the City to support the redevelopment has clearly been critical to its initiation.
While the City is committing significant resources to Waterway Village, leaders say the long-term success of the area hinges on the ability to attract investment and partners, both public and private. To date, external funding sources for the project have included a matching grant from the Alabama Department of Natural Resources, Coastal Division to fund the development of a master stormwater management plan, as well as a feasibility study for the creation of the pedestrian greenway. Also, to support street-level construction improvements in the district, an oil spill compensation funding grant from the BP Seafood and Tourism Promotion Fund was awarded. Legal research support was also provided by Mississippi/Alabama Sea Grant Outreach Program, and Acme Seafood, a private company that has opened the first new seafood restaurant in Waterway Village, has provided funding to support parking construction.
As plans for Waterway Village evolved, legal questions surrounding the creation of the pedestrian greenway and the seafood market have emerged as challenges to the Waterway Village development plan.
The pedestrian greenway is seen as a centerpiece of the Waterway Village design. The greenway would help meet the goals of improving access to the waterway itself, as well as linkages between the people and places of Gulf Shores, but legal research by the Mississippi/Alabama Sea Grant Outreach Program revealed issues surrounding the acquisition of the land proposed for the greenway. Using the City’s land-use zoning authority, the City created a public access pedestrian greenway requirement for new development (a mandate to provide access to waterfront as a condition of development permitting). In the case of the Intracoastal Waterway, the Army Corps of Engineers (ACE) holds an easement to the waterfront along a defined width of land as measured from the center from the canal. Therefore, development of the greenway would need to be authorized in accordance with ACE requirements. Furthermore, the land subject to the ACE easement is privately held by individual property owners and not currently subject to the public access requirement. Thus, the outstanding question stalling greenway development is: What legal options does the City have to acquire contiguous public access for a greenway across these private properties with ACE easements?  
Similarly, the launch of a seafood market at Waterway Village is central to the vision as a means to reconnect with the city’s working waterfront heritage. Likewise, the market presents legal challenges. The Intracoastal Waterway was constructed and is maintained by ACE for commercial navigation. As such, ACE has expressed concern with the number of potential Waterway Village dock slips along the ICW. ACE seeks to control boat traffic and congestion that can inhibit commercial barge transport and can lead to safety issues (i.e., interactions between barge traffic and smaller commercial and recreational boats). Therefore, by enforcing their ICW easement, ACE can control the number of dock slips made available in the Waterway Village area. The City and ACE are working together to resolve these issues, even though the implementation of overlay district is proceeding.
Legal research also revealed that seafood markets are subject to much more stringent public health regulations than selling seafood directly from the boat. Markets are subject to regulations related to vendor stalls and licenses, as well as seafood processing, packaging, and disposal. “Seafood direct” avoids many of these hurdles and would be simpler to implement, but lacks the visitor destination created by a market. In addition, the sale of shellfish is subject to more stringent public health regulations than the sale of fish only. Therefore, the launch of seafood sales at Waterway Village is stalled by these pending questions.

Key Partners
Andy Bauer, AICP Director of Planning & Zoning City of Gulf Shores, Alabama Case study compiled by: Kristen Grant Marine Extension Associate Maine Sea Grant and University of Maine Cooperative Extension


Additional Information

Overlay Districts
Overlay districts are a specific type of land use planning tool, usually an additional layer of zoning regulations which overlays the general zoning map, that is used to either encourage or discourage certain types of development. Waterfront communities can use them to preserve working waterfront infrastructure or to encourage new water-dependent developments. (NWWN Newsletter, Aug 2013)
Form Based Codes
Form-based codes foster predictable built results and a high-quality public realm by using physical form (rather than separation of uses) as the organizing principle for the code. They are regulations, not mere guidelines, adopted into city or county law. (Form-Based Codes Institute,

Interviews Jody Thompson, Mississippi/Alabama Sea Grant Consortium Andy Bauer, City of Gulf Shores, AL Niki Pace, Mississippi/Alabama Sea Grant Outreach Program Publications National Working Waterfront Network Newsletter, Aug 2013 M/A Sea Grant City of Gulf Shores see section 10-9

Last updated 19-Aug-15