The city will introduce its new zoning ordinance this month, Build Mobile Executive Director Shayla Beaco confirmed last week. Based on suggestions from the city’s long-range Map for Mobile, the ordinance will update zoning rules on the books since the 1960s.
“The Map for Mobile set the vision,” Beaco said.
While Map for Mobile and the city’s Future Land Use Map, or FLUM, have previously been approved by the Planning Commission, Beaco said approval of the ordinance will set many of those concepts into law.
It will also feature more areas for mixed-use development and have a heavier emphasis on design.
“It will focus on an individual neighborhood view,” she said. “What works in midtown may not work out in Hillcrest.”
The rules will work to find a balance between design and development while adding more predictability to the process by allowing more uses, she said.
Additionally, the ordinance will add suggestions to bolster the notification process when development encroaches on a neighborhood. Beaco said the department will begin to ask developers to step in and plan meetings with stakeholders before bringing their plans to the city.
“It will help make the residents more knowledgeable,” she said. “It’s not necessary to convince them.”
The department is making strides to make the zoning approval process easier on developers and residents as well. Beaco mentioned a push for expedited review, which would reduce some of the involvement of the Planning Commission, Board of Zoning Adjustment and the City Council.
Also, the department’s relatively new website makes it easier to submit plans and apply for permits in a more user-friendly way. The website’s self-service portal, launched in October, allows developers to avoid a trip downtown and submit everything online, Beaco said. There are currently 400 users signed up for the self-service portal, she said.
“It allows our team to focus on other issues,” she said. “It’s a huge step for the city to take with this.”
While many developers are aware of the process required in making changes to a building, residents may not be. Build Mobile Senior Director Marion McElroy explained some of the common misconceptions involved in permitting.
The city issued 16,138 permits, completed 22,806 inspections and conducted 11,160 plan reviews in 2018, McElroy said.
A permit is not needed to paint outside of a historic district but in many cases, work on a porch or stoop will require one. Rewiring of an entire building also requires a permit, she said. McElroy also suggested Build Mobile be contacted before any work is done on a commercial building.
Anything involving structural issues will probably require a permit, as well as projects involving life-safety issues, she said.
There can be an extra layer of review involved if a home or building is within one of the city’s 14 historic districts, Architectural Historian Paige Largue said.
Half of those districts also have a local historic designation, which triggers a local review process
“I don’t want to say restrictions, but there is a little bit more oversight,” she said.
In some cases work on a home in a local historic district might require a certificate of appropriateness from the department, Largue said.
Issues involving the outside of the house, like handrails and hardscaping — including pathways, driveways and other man-made features — might trigger reviews, she said. The commission encourages historic color schemes on homes in historic districts, Largue said, but they pick their battles as well.
“If you’re painting your house, chances are you’re protecting the wood that’s there,” she said. “So, we’re just excited that someone is, you know, doing the maintenance. You know we’re more concerned about the things that are really affecting the historic integrity of the house.”
One of the biggest issues the department runs into with homeowners is windows, she said. Windows in historic structures can hold a lot of architectural significance because they could be made with old-growth wood. Largue said the department will push people to repair older windows or replace them to match the existing materials.
“Now, if it’s a historic window and there’s no way to repair it, we say to repair and replace to match existing,” she said.
The city has several metalwork and window craftsman specializing in historic materials and the department will push homeowners and others in their direction.
While some of the recommendations can be more expensive, Largue acknowledged, she works with individuals on the process. When it comes to windows, for instance, she advise owners to maybe work on one window at a time if it’s too costly to replace all of them up to existing standards.
“We want to help people,” she said. “We want to provide solutions. We don’t want to be a problem.”
In some cases, a homeowner will come in with plans that are not within historic development guidelines, but Largue said they try to work with people to find solutions.
“I want to make sure we offer up a solution and alternative,” she said. “I try to tell people that yes it’s a process, but we are just a pit stop on that process. We’re not a roadblock.”
Also, the commission doesn’t seek out violations. In many cases complaints come from residents calling the city’s 3-1-1 line. Like with any other issue or complaint through 3-1-1, it is issued a service order number and moved to the applicable department.