The Mobile Planning Commission could see a tweaked version of the city’s proposed zoning code, which the outgoing City Council failed to pass late last month.
Build Mobile Executive Director Shayla Beaco said the city plans on letting the zoning code changes work their way again through the process, while her department helps get new council members up to speed on the new plan. The changes might include some suggested by former council members Bess Rich and Fred Richardson, as they were the two votes that killed the regulations in the council’s first vote.
Chief among those concerns for the former councilors are code sections each said they feared would too greatly alter neighborhoods. Among those top-line issues, Rich was against allowing accessory buildings, or mother-in-law suites, by right in residential districts and changes to allowances made for group homes.
“We’re revisiting it,” Beaco said. “The hope is to acknowledge the feedback we’ve received. We’re not looking to go through the process with a rubber stamp. There is no draft already prepared to run through these channels.”
On the issue of accessory buildings, Beaco said the changes that garnered a strong reaction from the two councilors in question came directly from community members during face-to-face meetings and through the comment period.
“That issue originated from comments we heard through early listening sessions,” she said. “Homeowners wanted the flexibility to provide for family members. They have to jump through a lot of hoops right now.”
Currently, homeowners who wish to add another building to a residential lot have to go through the planning process and get approval from the Planning Commission. If the new regulations pass, as written, homeowners could build mother-in-law suites once building permits are obtained.
As for councilors’ issues with the changes regarding group homes in residential areas, Beaco said updating the code also means taking changes into federal definitions of disabilities into account. She stopped short of saying the 1967 zoning ordinance violated current federal law as it relates to group homes.
“We’re limited in our ability to go beyond federal law,” Beaco said. “Some of those requirements aren’t new, but as the definition changes, we need to be able to respond.”
The timeline for when the Planning Commission could again see the regulations, Beaco said, relies greatly on her ability to speak with the four new members of the Mobile City Council and educate them on the planned zoning changes.
“There are four new council members; some have been following the process and have some understanding,” she said. “We want to take time to make sure everyone understands it. We want them to have the background.”
Beaco still sees the end of the year or the beginning of 2022 as a possible timeframe to resubmit the new regulations to the Planning Commission.
Michael Curtis, a planner with Planning Next, worked as a planning consultant for the city for the comprehensive plan known as Map for Mobile and on the new regulations. Curtis was responsible for many aspects of civic engagement during both processes.
Curtis said the turnout in Mobile during the planning process was great, especially during the first stages of the creation of the city’s new comprehensive plan.
“Mobile’s engagement was very robust during the Map process,” he said. “With in-person meetings, we filled massive rooms with 500-plus people.”
The process of creating the regulations was a bit more technical, Curtis said, but the city still organized meetings with stakeholders and neighborhood groups.
When it comes to the new regulations, Curtis said he’s not surprised the council voted them down on the first vote.
“This is really hard work,” he said. “Things are always unpredictable and politics are always at play.”
A vote to replace the 1967 version of the city’s zoning code with the new regulations failed due to lack of a supermajority vote. Four members voted in favor of the changes, while two members voted against them.
Concerns in Sand Town
Barbara Smith, president of the Sand Town Community Action Group, and other neighbors spoke to councilors during a public hearing on the zoning regulations to voice concerns over how the historically Black part of Spring Hill was being treated by the changes.
Specifically, Smith and others disagree with being subjected to an overlay district governed by rules by the Village of Spring Hill. Smith doesn’t want the small Black community to be subjected to the mandatory rules put in place by another group they’re not a part of.
“The changes being made … little by little, bit by bit, they’re forcing us out,” Smith said. “At some point, it needs to get noticed and it needs to get noticed by the city.”
She said her nonprofit group has been vocal when it comes to zoning in the area. They fought against a proposed veterinary clinic that had been planned across the street from St. Ignatius Catholic Church. The clinic ultimately did not build there.
The group has also been active in its comments opposing the new zoning regulations. Smith said the group has written comments and has shown the city evidence of the disappearing community.
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