Tensions are rising in Bayou La Batre over a set of proposed zoning changes that have longtime business owners fearing the worst and some city officials at their wits’ end.
Members of the City Council are gearing up to consider a 200-page zoning ordinance the city planning board has spent the past 18 months developing with assistance from the South Alabama Regional Planning Commission.
Yet many residents are concerned the proposed changes might create hardships for some of the industries that earned the city its nickname as the “Seafood Capital of Alabama.” Those concerns have been aired in the open at recent public meetings, but things came to a head last week.
As a handful of citizens were speaking out against the proposed zoning overhaul at an April 26 meeting, Mayor Terry Downey reportedly referred to the city he leads as “nothing but a mudhole.”
“It was the most ludicrous thing I’ve ever heard any elected official say in my life. I’ve had some good times and bad times here, but to say the city’s ‘nothing but a mudhole,’ it was truly shocking,” Councilman Henry Barnes recalled.
No Lagniappe reporter attended the April 26 meeting where Downey is said to have made that comment, but Barnes and at least three others who did have confirmed the allegation. Many others residents attended the meeting as well, and the social media backlash was swift.
Less than 24 hours after it was made, a Facebook post about Downey’s “mudhole” comment had been shared more than 300 times, with the vast majority of posters criticizing the remark.
Downey, who “doesn’t do Facebook,” said he believes the context of his statement has been incorrectly portrayed. He told Lagniappe the statement “wasn’t meant to be mean spirited,” only “factual,” adding he has no problem with the city he calls home.
“We know we dwell at four feet above sea level, but I’m not saying we’re going to run away from it. People used to say, ‘You get that Bayou mud between your toes.’” Downey said. “We’re a wetland zone … let’s build something. If Bayou La Batre is a mudhole, we’ll fix it.”
Others, however, don’t seem ready to believe that. Barnes told Lagniappe the mayor seemed to be upset that the zoning plan crafted by the planning board he and his wife serve on was not receiving much support from the community or from the members of the council.
“He could see he wasn’t going to get this zoning ordinance passed and just seemed to get frustrated,” Barnes said. “I know I’m not going to vote in favor of it. I can’t speak for the rest.”
Whether residents are prepared to move past Downey’s comment remains to be seen, but the city is still headed for a debate on what could be the first changes to its zoning laws since 2005.
Most opposition so far has focused on land use and particularly how existing businesses will be affected by the changes being considered. If approved as written, it does appear the ordinance would impact the approved uses in areas currently housing some long-standing local businesses.
Areas previously used by waterfront industries could be rezoned and repurposed in favor of ecotourism-based businesses such as kayak and canoe rentals. However, it would also move those areas previously used by industry out of federal flood plains expected to expand in 2019.
Steiner Shipyard, which has built vessels in South Mobile County for decades, could see its facility on Hemley Street rezoned into an area for “single residential” homes as opposed to the new “working waterfront” zone that would permit similar operations under the new plan.
While the ordinance allows businesses to be grandfathered in as “nonconformities,” several stipulations could revoke that status and some are outside of an owner’s control.
For example, if a hurricane were to damage more than 50 percent of a building allowed as a “nonconformity,” the business would be unable to rebuild and operate in the same area because the new structure would have to then comply with the new zoning ordinances moving forward.
At a recent meeting, Russell Steiner said a hurricane could easily set back businesses like his.
“I’ve been there since 1976, and we’ve built around 400 boats. You can imagine how many people I’ve worked with over the years and how much has gone into this town,” he added. “I’d like to be able to stay in business. I’ve felt we’ve always been an asset to this city.”
Speaking with Lagniappe last week, Downey said there’s “no ill intent” toward any industry in Bayou La Batre hidden in the zoning ordinance, especially those that have traditionally generated a large portion of the tax revenue keeping the city afloat. He did say the changes are aimed at finding a balance between residential and industrial areas and diversifying the businesses in the city, but said he and the council are happy to work with any business that feels it could suffer hardship under the new ordinances.
“We’d be foolish to try to put somebody out of business. We know what the businesses mean to us, but also I represent the people that live there,” he said. “We have to try to be balanced and look for other sources of revenue. We’re not Gulf Shores or Orange Beach — we know who we are, but I feel like we have to start somewhere.”
Some opposed to the changes, including Barnes, have said they have no problem with increasing recreational tourism opportunities or diversifying the types of local businesses — they just don’t want to bring hardship to the industries the city was built on that continue to generate a substantial portion of its tax revenue.
“Bayou La Batre is and will always be the ‘Seafood Capital of Alabama,’” Barnes said. “If you can’t buy something in the Bayou for a commercial boat, it can be found. If it can’t be found, there are people in the Bayou that can build it.”
A public hearing to address the proposed zoning changes has been scheduled for 6 p.m., May 14, at the Bayou La Batre Civic Center on Padgett Switch Road.