From a new way to handle appeals to the codifying of what were once voluntary requirements in the Village of Spring Hill, members of the Mobile City Council heard a number of concerns from residents over a proposed new zoning code on Tuesday afternoon.
Councilors met to discuss the proposed unified development code for the city. The proposal looks to replace the existing zoning code, originally passed in the 1960s and updated in 1991. The committee meeting was lively, lasting more than two and a half hours and covering a laundry list of concerns from residents.
One such concern, shared among residents and councilors alike, was the new UDC’s shift away from planning approvals to what will be called “special exceptions.” The new use classification joins the “by right” designation and the “conditional use” designation. Under the current zoning code, all three uses would be determined by the mayor-appointed Planning Commission and those aggrieved would appeal first to the City Council and then to Circuit Court.
Under the proposed rules, “special exceptions,” which involve “smaller neighborhood issues,” according to city planner Margaret Pappas, would be decided by the council-appointed Board of Zoning Adjustment and would have to be appealed directly to Circuit Court.
While residents complained the new approach would make going against a planner decision harder and more costly for neighborhoods, Build Mobile Executive Director Shayla Beaco said the change puts Mobile code more in line with state law. She said the city basically created the term “planning approval” within the state.
“We’re trying to get in compliance,” Beaco said. “We’re the only city that does not follow the procedure.”
While Councilwoman Bess Rich said she understands the issue with the guidelines at the state level, she added that a more clear and better fix would be to make these “special exceptions” the same as rezoning requests. All rezoning applications come before the City Council for final approval. As an example, Rich said she believed a carnival or circus in a low-density residential zone should be considered a zoning change and not a “special exception.”
“To me that’s a zoning change and it needs to be heard by the City Council or future councils,” she said. “The (Board of Zoning Adjustment) is appointed by council, but they are not elected officials.”
She also had issues with the appeals of “special exceptions” going to Circuit Court.
“That next step is a costly one for the city and for anyone aggrieved,” Rich said. “We need a lot more on this.”
Councilman John Williams, who also seemed concerned about the change, said the term “special exception” shows up more than 93 times on the proposed chart of uses.
James Hyde, president of the Muir Woods Property Owners Association, said his group supports leaving the planning approval appeals the way it is. He said his neighborhood fought the relocation of a cell tower using appeals to the City Council and going through the Circuit Court would have been too costly.
“We want to be able to keep the right to appeal to the City Council, even if it’s counter to state law,” he said. “It worked for us.”
Also at issue for a number of residents is that the proposed zoning code would make the special Village of Spring Hill plan mandatory through what will be called an “overlay district.”
One of the residents opposed to the mandatory changes was Erica Jones, a founding member of the Sand Town Community Action Group.
Speaking on behalf of residents of the historic black neighborhood within Spring Hill, Jones said the group was not invited to develop the village plans and she fears making them mandatory could lead to gentrification.
“We’re concerned about the elimination of the historical people who originally founded the area,” she said. “We need more input in many, many ways.”
Linda St. John, president of the village, defended the plan. She said a number of news articles had been written about the plan during its planning stages and fliers were distributed through Spring Hill noting a time and place for interested residents to gather in order to have a say over the zoning tweaks, which are currently voluntary under the current zoning rules.
“Our plan does not include residential property,” she said. “It only affects four areas of commercial property.”
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