With a hand puppet raised above his head, Thomas Steele addressed the Bayou La Batre City Council at its May 24 meeting to criticize Mayor Terry Downey and a proposed zoning ordinance that was doomed to fail spectacularly that evening.
“You can put a puppet on your hand and make it say anything you want. A puppet is spineless, and this just happens to be a snake puppet,” he said. “You’re fired, Terry.”
Steele was the first of several who asked Downey to step down from his position as mayor at the meeting, which was attended by some 50 people.
Most were there in opposition to a zoning proposal developed by the city’s planning commission over the last two years with assistance from the Southeast Alabama Regional Planning Commission (SARPC).
As Lagniappe previously reported, some in the city’s business community had expressed concerns the 200-page zoning overhaul would affect where their businesses would be able to operate if they had to be rebuilt or the ownership changed hands.
As SARPC’s community development director, Diane Burnett worked with the planning commission on the proposal and said most of the concerns business owners raised were addressed or were based on a misunderstanding of what the ordinance would do.
Despite those assurances, the idea persisted that the proposed zoning changes would drive out longstanding shipbuilding and seafood industries in favor of more ecotourism-based businesses, such as kayak and canoe rentals or outings to view migratory birds.
Burnett said those types of businesses would help the city capitalize on its natural resources and noted they would also be able to operate in environmentally sensitive areas owned by Alabama’s Forever Wild program that currently have no permitted uses.
Opposition to the plan quickly spread on social media, but Downey added fuel to the fire in April when he said Bayou La Batre was “nothing but a mudhole” while defending the proposed zoning ordinance — a phrase that was rehashed at the May 24 meeting as well.
Downey has maintained the intent of any zoning changes was to add businesses to the city, not take anything away. But with a lack of support for the proposal on the City Council, Downey ultimately helped vote it down and voted in favor of a second motion that “killed it” entirely.
Both decisions were unanimous and met with thunderous applause from the audience.
“There’s no effort to push anybody out, it was just an effort to try to grab some of these revenues that are out there,” Downey said at the meeting. “This map is going to be changed, and we’ll get another shot at it.”
For SARPC, the opposition was a bit of a surprise considering the zoning proposal was driven primarily by a comprehensive plan the planning commission adopted in 2016 based on input from a survey of more than 350 Bayou La Batre residents.
Primarily a planning agency, SARPC operates only in an advisory capacity to assist member governments in Mobile, Baldwin and Escambia counties with community planning and development, especially those that don’t have the staff or resources to tackle it themselves.
State law requires public input in that process, but in this case, the adoption of the comprehensive plan and the recent zoning proposal were three years and two mayors apart.
“The entire process is driven by the community. They tell us what they want, and if everyone in the community wants industry throughout the entire waterfront, we’ll write it that way,” Burnett said. “Unfortunately, their community was divided, and we honestly did not expect that.”
Burnett said much of the proposal voted down is similar to the city’s existing zoning ordinance, which was adopted in 2005.
She said that ordinance could always be amended or updated without rewriting it entirely, but no matter how the city wants to address its zoning laws going forward, Burnett said any proposed changes need to be more concise and easier to understand.
“‘It’s too long.’ ‘It’s 200 pages.’ We heard that from a couple of people, so I think we need to downsize it and do some things differently,” Burnett said. “They have to decide what they want to do or not do.”
City officials haven’t said how they’ll move forward, but the issue could likely come up again.
The recent rezoning effort was funded in part by state and federal grants, and it’s currently unclear how scrapping the entire ordinance would affect the status of those grants — not to mention the fact that the comprehensive plan that prompted the proposed changes is still in place.
At the May 24 meeting, a few people suggested the planning commission, on which Downey and his wife both serve, be disbanded entirely or that all new members be appointed. Downey did not appear to give the suggestion much consideration.
Nicole Taylor, a regional planner with SARPC, attended this week’s planning commission meeting and said there’s still some confusion about how to move forward given the council’s motion to dissolve proposed zoning ordinance in its entirety.
While there’s no intention to present the document to the council again without major changes, there are provisions that might be salvageable in future attempts to address zoning concerns in Bayou La Batre.
In the meantime, the commission is waiting to receive a certified copy of the minutes from the May 24 meeting, as Taylor said members would not be working on zoning until they receive further instruction from the city.
According to Taylor, planning commissioners are hoping the council can address what direction it would like the commissioners to move in regard the city’s zoning code at its June 14 meeting.
Downey told Lagniappe this week the commission plans to revisit the city’s comprehensive plan, which falls under its authority. He said there could possibly be some amendments, though nothing has been decided.
Asked about the calls for his resignation, Downey said “That’s never entered into my mind.
“I was elected to do a job here. The folks can make their decision on how they want to vote, but there will be no resignation,” he said. “I’ve got four years in here, and maybe more.”