After a legal battle that lasted almost a year, a group of Mobile residents will not be able to stop the Airmont Property Owners Association from closing off access to Azalea Road.
In a decision reached Friday without an opinion, the Alabama Supreme Court affirmed an earlier Mobile County Circuit Court decision to allow the closure, which the City Council approved in January 2015.
Airmont Property Owners Association president Eaton Barnard said the vote and subsequent ruling was mainly about safety concerns for the neighborhood’s residents.
“Mobile will be safer because of this ruling,” he said. “Crime will go down as a result.”
Barnard said everyone in the neighborhood supported the move, but the group got resistance from a number of neighbors in adjoining communities.
Dr. Janice Morton Hunte, who was the named plaintiff in the suit, raised concerns in a letter to Mayor Sandy Stimpson and councilors before the initial vote. In the letter, she questioned the amount of crime the neighborhood suffered. Other opponents said the move would create a safety issue and be inconvenient for them.
Meanwhile proponents of the move have said all along that crime was the primary factor in the request. The closure was not intended to be exclusionary, Barnard said, but rather for safety.
“It was to stop or substantially deter crime taking place,” he said.
In fact, Barnard said the crime problem in the neighborhood has continued in the months leading up to the Supreme Court ruling. As an example, Barnard said the home of a “young family” was burglarized in broad daylight and televisions were stolen. In that case, he said, police were able to track the suspected burglars down and recover the property.
Barnard said he understands the opposition, but would allow the closure if the roles were reversed.
“We don’t wish ill will to our neighbors,” he said. “It’s inconvenient for them, but it’s a bigger inconvenience for us.”
The ruling clears the way for the association to again meet and take bids for construction of a 3-foot-high fence blocking a portion of Montclaire Way at Airmont Drive.
“It’s not going to be a Berlin wall,” he said. “It’s going to be a 3-foot fence.”
The closure would block off what neighbors say is a cut-through. The structure would also have a pedestrian walkway and landscaping on either side.
“The neighborhood is really excited,” Barnard said. “We’re excited about moving forward.”
Barnard said the group would meet in about a week or so and bid out the project again. One of the caveats from the city, he said, was that the Airmont Property Owners must pay for the closure themselves.
The ruling could definitely impact the number of closure requests in the future, but many will be “fact dependent,” Barnard, a personal injury trial attorney, said.
“You cannot compromise the safety of anyone else,” he said. “You have to allow the other neighborhood to get fire and police protection.”
Before moving forward with the request, Barnard said the Airmont group had to check with the Mobile Police Department, the Mobile Fire-Rescue Department and all city utilities to make sure the closure wouldn’t negatively impact these operations.
“Just because we do it, it doesn’t mean everyone else can do it,” Barnard said.
Councilman Joel Daves, who represents Airmont residents on the council, said the request has already resulted in neighborhoods asking for similar treatment.
Daves, who along with five other councilors voted in favor of allowing Airmont to close off a portion of Montclaire Way, said he’s heard good arguments on both sides of the issue. On one hand, he said, it’s important to make sure neighborhood roads, designed only for a certain level of traffic, aren’t treated like thoroughfares. On the other hand, he said — with a nod to Councilman Fred Richardson, who voted against Airmont initially — it’s also important to remember that all citizens pay for public streets.
Recently, property owners in Regency Oaks have requested a temporary closure of Andover Boulevard for a traffic study. The move sparked a debate, which was to be part of a discussion at a Public Safety Committee meeting Tuesday, Jan. 17.
In the case of Regency Oaks, the neighborhood wants to close off access to vehicular traffic but would keep paths open for pedestrians and cyclists, Property Owners Association president Brent Barkin said in a previous interview. At issue for residents inside Regency Oaks is safety.
Given the controversy, some in the Regency Oaks neighborhood have not signed a petition that would allow the closure to be permanent, despite concerns over the speed of cut-through traffic in the area.
Daves said the council “needs to hear from everybody” on the issue before coming to a conclusion on an ordinance dealing with security gates.
“We’ll have to see where it goes,” he said, referring to the Jan. 17 meeting, which was to end after this issue goes to press.