As Mobile continues to roll back services on the city’s outskirts, county officials are left to figure out how to compensate — often, they say, with little warning from Mayor Sandy Stimpson’s administration.
That was the tone at least two members of the Mobile County Commission took this week when discussing the city’s plan to rein in the Five Mile Planning Jurisdiction bordering the city. Developments and subdivisions in that area are currently subject to zoning rules and ordinances set by the Mobile Planning Commission.
However, the Planning Commission will hold a meeting Sept. 6 to receive public comments on a proposal to roll back the city’s regulatory authority in that area, which means Mobile County could assume responsibility for inspecting and approving proposed developments in the jurisdiction as early as January 2019.
While five miles may not seem like much, Matthew Barclift, an engineering manager for the county, said the city has previously indicated 35 percent of its subdivision applications have fallen inside of the planning jurisdiction, a trend that is likely to continue given the outward migration of Mobile’s population.
After an extensive review of the effects of such a rollback, Barclift said it would no doubt create a “greater burden” for the county and likely result in the need for additional employees to take on the workload. That’s one of the reasons some commissioners were unhappy with how they heard about the proposed changes.
“We had no idea,” Commissioner Merceria Ludgood said, telling Lagniappe they only learned of the proposal at the Planning Commission’s Aug. 16 meeting. “[The city] kind of makes the decisions, then come and tell us what they plan to do, and typically we have to just jockey for time. It’s never: ‘Let’s talk about this’ or ‘This is the goal we’re trying to achieve, how can we work together for us to get there?’ They just decide, and we follow along.”
Ludgood’s take isn’t just based on recent discussion about rolling back the planning zone, though. Similar actions have been proposed or officially taken by the city regarding police, fire and emergency medical services with Mobile’s three-mile police jurisdiction in the last two years.
Paul Wesch, the city’s executive director of finance and Stimpson’s acting chief of staff, said in the case of police jurisdiction and the reduction in fire service, all three county commissioners were informed well in advance of any decision being made by the city.
However, Wesch did say he didn’t have information about the planning zone issue or how it was rolled out by the planning commission.
While the city has been working with the county to ensure emergency medical and fire services in the police jurisdiction are rendered throughout the transition, that decision will ultimately cost the county hundreds of thousands of dollars in extra subsidies to the Mobile County EMS for responding to additional calls in the expanded area.
While no firm cost estimate has been released to the public, Barclift made a presentation to commissioners Monday suggesting additional staff members will be needed to shoulder the workload if the plan is approved.
However, costs aren’t the biggest concern. According to Barclift, the county currently lacks several of the regulatory enforcement tools available to the city’s Planning Commision. To take on the new responsibilities, he said, the county would likely have to update its subdivision and stormwater regulations as well as its fire code, in addition to tweaking a number of other enforcement policies.
Without those new policies in place, a change in the zoning authority could, at best, create a confusing situation for a number of developers and, at worst, leave the county with no authority at all to regulate certain aspects of development.
Even if the necessary changes are made, they’ll take time to implement. Barclift noted any change to the county’s subdivision regulations takes six months to go into effect from the date it’s enacted, per state law.
“The concern is that any of these adoptions take time. They take time to draft, to review, to do public comment and to advertise and implement,” Barclift said. “So, if the Planning Commission votes either on Sept. 6 or on Sept. 20, the change will take effect Jan. 1, which will leave us a very short time frame to be able to get these things in place prior to having to take on those responsibilities.”
However, Alabama law will be putting time constraints on the Planning Commission as well. Barclift said if the Planning Commission doesn’t approve the rollback by Oct. 1, it won’t be able to take effect until 2020. The Planning Commission has so far not responded to emails asking about its willingness to delay the plan that long.
For now, though, the county plans to ask the Planning Commission directly if it will delay the rollback long enough for it to take care of staffing and regulatory concerns. Despite the potential delay, Ludgood said she believes it’s a reasonable request given the history of cooperation between the city and county.
“When the city wants to get out of the business of being a regional player with the county, I’m not going to argue with them about that. That is their right, but at the same time, for us to say we need another fiscal year to be able to do this I don’t think is unreasonable,” she added. “If they choose not to do it, then we just need to make sure people understand that, while we’re operating in chaos, it is not because we didn’t try to do this strategically. We were forced because of actions that a city body took.”
The Mobile Planning Commission will take public comments about the proposed rollback during a planned meeting at 2 p.m. on Thursday, Sept. 6, in the auditorium at Mobile County’s Government Plaza.
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