For the two opposing sides, Tuesday’s City Council meeting represented a battle between either the future of industry or the health and safety of Mobilans.
The council voted 6-1 to accept changes to the zoning ordinance that affect the placement of petroleum storage tanks along the Mobile River downtown. The vote came only a week after a March 22 hearing on the matter brought more than 30 speaks to the lectern.
Councilmen Levon manzie and Joel Daves did offer amendments that were later adopted, which changed the language of three of the ordinance’s sticking points.
The first change, suggested by Manzie, made the 1,500-foot minimum setback apply to both occupied and unoccupied homes, schools and churches within the enhanced scrutiny area along the west bank of the Mobile River.
The other two amendments, offered by Daves, changed the wording of a controversial section of the proposed ordinance dealing with the grandfathering in of property already owned by tank farm operators.
Under Daves’ approved change, only property owned by an operator at the time of the ordinance’s adoption would be considered part of a site and an operator would only be allowed to expand within its footprint without further planning approval, if the site in question had previously been approved.
All other scenarios would require approval from the Planning Commission and be subject to public scrutiny.
Councilwoman Bess Rich, the lone dissenter, said she was “disappointed” because she felt the public input that had been part of the process for more than two years had been taken away. Her comments were directed at amendments that were added after a previous version of the ordinance had been signed off on by Keep Mobile Growing and Mobile Baykeeper.
Although he offered an amendment and approved the final document, Manzie said the ordinance was far from perfect, but was the best offering at the time, given the “political realities.”
“This is not the Cadillac plan,” he said. “It’s not even the Ford ….”
Manzie said the ordinance was a start and could be further amended if need be. Daves agreed.
“This is not perfect for anyone’s standpoint, but comprehensive solutions rarely are,” Daves said. “I look forward to continued discussions on this issue.”
Councilors’ comments on possible amendments further down the road added to earlier arguments from concerned citizens and environmentalists asking the body to holdover a vote on the ordinance until, White & Smith LLC, a law firm specializing in zoning issues did what the city had just hired them to do and review various aspects of the zoning, land use and major street codes.
Marie Dyson, of 203 S. Dearborn Street, urged councilors to take no action on the ordinance and let the zoning experts take a look at it.
“Oppose this ordinance, don’t pass it,” she said. “Take the opportunity for more time to allow the zoning study. The current ordinance doesn’t solve the problem. It’s piecemeal.”
During a pre-conference meeting Tuesday morning, Rich argued that the professional zoning experts contracted by the council to overhaul the zoning regulations should look at tank regulations as well.
The contract with White & Smith is set for two years and city leaders expect the process to extend over three fiscal years. Given the estimated time, other councilors argued that the process has already taken more than two years and shouldn’t be delayed again. Manzie, who supported Rich, said the residents affected by the tanks don’t care how long it takes.
“They’ve waited over two years to get to this point; if it takes another two years to get the right type of regulations and the right type of protection for the community and the industry, I don’t see the problem.”
Manzie said the city gave non-experts on the Planning Commission more than two years to iron out the set of regulations they are voted on today.
Mayor Sandy Stimpson said he opposed the idea to put the “volatile” tank issue on the plate of the consultants. He asked if Rich and other councilors would be willing to go with whatever the consultants came up with, but Rich said she would not just “rubber stamp” the suggestions of the consultants.
During his time to speak at the regular meeting, Stimpson said the new contract should not delay the vote on the tank issue.
The council also discussed how many people would be allowed to speak and for how long, during the pre-conference meeting. Several councilors seemed to prefer limiting the number of speakers to four, following a marathon two-and-half hour public hearing the week before.
Manzie disagreed. He prefered to let as many residents that signed up to speak do so.
“If they took the time to come down here and speak, we ought to give them the opportunity to speak,” Manzie said. “The majority of those in this room don’t live anywhere near tanks. They do.”
Given the 36 speakers the week before, council President Gina Gregory ruled that new speakers would get the normal five minutes to speak, but those who spoke last week and had something new to offer would get only three minutes.
There also seemed to be confusion over the last sentence of the clause related to the grandfathering in of current tank operators. The problem was eventually fixed, but not before the council took a long break to discuss it. Although Gregory gaveled the meeting to recess, as many as four councilors spoke in a group at one time before the meeting was called back to order.
Attorney Jarrod White said since the councilors’ discussions could be heard from those in attendance at the previously advertised meeting, the gathering was not a violation of Alabama’s Open Meetings Act.
In other business, the council approved a $1,086,714 contract with James H. Adams & Sons Construction for citywide drainage improvements as well as a $50,000 performance contract with the Mobile Area Chamber of Commerce Foundation for a business incubator on St. Louis Street.
The council also declared nine properties in the Africatown and Plateau communities as nuisances and ordered them repaired or demolished.
The council also introduced an agenda item on proposed cuts to the WAVE transit system, but immediately held it over for two weeks ahead of a public hearing on April 12.
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