That didn’t take long. Less than two months after a late December referendum formed Baldwin County Planning District 19, residents of a historically Black neighborhood south of Fairhope who were excluded from the boundaries — and consequently the vote — have followed through with a threat and filed a lawsuit against the Baldwin County Commission seeking to nullify the district.
In a racially tinged complaint filed last week, the plaintiffs claim the Battles Road Preservation Group LLC, who is not listed as a defendant, “are residents of the Lakewood Subdivision who desired to create District 19 in order to disenfranchise the African American residents of District 19.”
As Lagniappe previously reported, state law requires the boundaries of planning districts to correspond with voting precincts, “unless the commission determines that the use of the voting precinct boundaries is not feasible.”
Prior to the quiet special election that formed Planning District 19 on Dec. 28, the county accepted the applicants’ boundaries, which excluded historically Black neighborhoods in Voting Precinct 10, “without making a determination that was not feasible to use the boundaries of Precinct 10.” The referendum passed by a vote of 293 in favor of zoning and 28 against it.
The complaint further alleges there are discrepancies in the number of qualified electors residing in Planning District 19, and “many if not most of the African American qualified electors in District 19 did not receive notice of the zoning election.” Finally, it claims the election was held in the sanctuary of Bethel Lutheran Church on County Road 32, “which is highly irregular and inappropriate. Some African Americans chose not to vote because they were shocked and intimidated by the election being held in the church’s sanctuary. Normally, if not always, elections are held in a church’s community hall or center, not the sanctuary where people worship God.”
Listed as plaintiffs are District 19 residents Willard Holliman and Gregory Knight. They are asking the court for a declaratory judgment finding the district “was not properly established and is therefore null and void” and an injunction against the county from enforcing any zoning powers therein.
After a more than 10-year lull, residents in at least three precincts in Baldwin County began seeking new zoning protections last year. In January, County Administrator Wayne Dyess told Lagniappe he could account for the inconsistent boundaries between Planning District 19 and Voting Precinct 10, explaining the planning director who drew the boundaries for Planning District 19 is no longer with the county, but “he worked with the citizens who requested the change and he presented his recommendation to the County Commission.”
In comments since the election, county staff and elected officials have repeatedly called the zoning process “citizen-driven,” suggesting their hands are tied by state law and the will of the citizens. This week, the county acknowledged it had received the complaint and is reviewing it, but declined further comment.
Willie Williams, president of the Baldwin County Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration Committee Inc., organized the lawsuit and warned that if successful, it may have implications throughout the county.
“The flawed process deprived the Black residents of Point Clear their voice on an issue of central importance to their community,” he wrote in a letter to the commission last month. “Black residents have long been concerned that zoning authorities will use land use regulations to force or unduly influence them off their properties. As a result, Black voters have long opposed the type of zoning authority that is now being forced upon them.”
But regardless of the lawsuit, the commission on Tuesday approved five members to serve on an advisory committee for District 19, including Holliman. Separately, the commission also certified a petition for yet another planning district north of Magnolia Springs, which will also have inconsistent boundaries with the voting precinct. But in proposed Planning District 11, staff noted a very detailed reason why the precinct boundaries are not feasible.
“The proposed Planning District 11 lies within Voting Precinct 36,” staff reported. “However, it is not feasible to utilize Voting Precinct 36 for the new Planning District 11 boundary because Voting Precinct 36 already contains four areas that are separately zoned, including Planning District 20, Planning District 21, the town of Magnolia Springs and portions of the city of Foley.”
The commission’s approval sets up an election for Planning District 11 no later than May 31.
County Commissioner Joe Davis assured the process would be transparent.
“The requirement of how we publicize these elections should be considered the minimum that we have to do,” he said. “We should and will be doing everything we can to make everyone aware by whatever means possible to make sure all the people who live in these districts are made aware as early as possible.”
But the lawsuit looms.
“This effort to intentionally discourage Black participation in the voting process potentially violates longstanding non-discrimination protections under the U.S. Constitution,” Williams wrote. “Here, the long history of the Black community’s resistance to zoning, coupled with the unusual and extra-legal steps taken to circumvent that resistance provides troubling evidence of a potential constitutional violation.
“Moreover, among the many residents opposing the imposition of zoning authority in Precinct 10, the lines of the planning district disproportionately target Black residents for inclusion. As a result, now over 60 percent of Black voters in Precinct 10 are subject to zoning authority that many in the Black community have strongly opposed, and that has the potential to entirely disrupt their lives and properties.”
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