Mobile Chief of Staff Colby Cooper put one foot in Three Mile Creek and then another. The water wasn’t like the clear, pristine waters of the Gulf, but he wasn’t there for a relaxing day. Cooper, along with many others, was there to pull the bottles, stuffed animals, paper and whatever else had found its way to one of the city’s main waterways over the years.
While a crew was working on cleaning up the creek during the Nov. 23 District 1 clean up day, a larger group was picking up tires and trash on land.
The group worked for hours cleaning up the area and at the end, it looked like a different place. The trash was gone and the creek was clean. But, as one Mobile man pointed out weeks later, the trash had returned as soon as one of the country’s rainiest cities had a normal downpour.
During Mayor Sandy Stimpson’s campaign, it was evident how much he despises litter. Every time people were out at intersections holding up “One Mobile” or “Sandy for Mayor” signs, they were also picking up trash that had been dropped or thrown out car windows.
“We always leave an intersection cleaner than when we got there,” Stimpson said several times during the campaign.
Bob Haskins with Keep Mobile Beautiful said littering in Mobile is holding it back from being the city it can be.
“Littering in and around Mobile has reached a disgusting level and it needs to stop. Keep Mobile Beautiful organizes cleanups, we talk to neighborhood groups and our Outreach Coordinator visits schools throughout the County to teach children about how bad litter is,” he said. “If Mobile truly wants to become a world class aerospace city then everyone should help stop litter at the source.”
When Stimpson was a newly elected mayor who had not been sworn in yet, he said he hoped his example of cleaning up Mobile would be one that citizens would follow. One of his inaugural events was a clean up day in District 3.
However, the question remains — why is Mobile so trashy? Why is cleaning up abandoned lots and houses so difficult? What can Mobilians do to clean up?
Nearly every part of the city is touched by litter — someone throws out a cigarette butt or a motorist leaves a flat tire where it was switched out for a spare. City Council attorney Jim Rossler explained it is already against city code to litter, but some people don’t know to what extent that entails.
“Some years ago, the council approved an encompassing litter ordinance. That includes putting out household trash to cleaning up private property,” Rossler said.
One aspect some Mobilians may not know is against city code is yard clippings — such as grass and leaves — should not be put onto streets and alleys or in stormwater structures or ditches.
The grass and leaves put in storm drains are the leaves and grass that clog up the drainage systems, which cause miniature raging rivers in our streets after a hard rain. But it’s not just the leaves and grass going into the storm drains. The litter is making its way through the drains and into area waterways as well. That means downpours brings a deluge of trash into the creeks, rivers and bay where Mobilians live, work and play.
Volunteer Three Mile Creek Watershed Monitor Rob Nykvist has been patrolling the waters of Mobile County for years now. He’s seen what happens when the rain brings trash to the waterways.
“Every time it rains in Mobile it is like a trash truck has overturned spilling all its contents into the creek,” he said. “Funny thing is if a trash truck turned over on the interstate spilling its contents, someone would be dispatched almost immediately to clean it up. When that same amount of trash ends up in Mobile’s urban waterways, no one is dispatched to remove the trash.”
After Mobile had precipitation of almost two inches recently, Nykvist went to the same creek Cooper and others cleaned just weeks ago.
“This shoreline did not have a single piece of trash on it because of the Toulminville Cleanup Event two weeks ago. Now look at the shoreline. One thing for sure — special cleanup up events are worthless in keeping waterways clean in Mobile,” Nykvist wrote in an email to city councilors and the mayor.
Nykvist isn’t the only person wanting change.
During the Dec. 3 City Council meeting, a fed-up District 1 resident, Carlota Russell, came to plead with the council to do something about an abandoned business on St. Stephen’s Road and to clean up the lot with tall grass and weeds littered with trash and tires.
District 1 Councilman Fred Richardson was lamenting the blight as well.
“The building is an abandoned business and is a nice structure. It’s not one that’s worn down … someone just walked away,” he said on Dec. 3. “So the grass is up and it’s an assortment of blight — cans, bottles, paper, you know it. It’s all around that business. There’s tires in the back and it seems like the city is saying, ‘We’re so sorry, but there’s nothing we can do. You just have to live with it.’”
Unfortunately, Deputy Director of Urban Forestry Ron Jackson told the council, Richardson wasn’t that far off. Private property, like the abandoned business on St. Stephen’s Road, requires an enormous amount of effort and waiting time before cleaning can begin.
The particular property is in line for weed abatement, but it has taken three to four months to come before the council. After the council approves cleaning up the lots, then it takes time before the properties are cleaned up.
“With private properties, we have to find and then notify the owners first. Then, we must wait for a period of time to allow them to clean or make repairs,” Jackson said. “State law is what dictates what we can do.”
For example, the St. Stephen’s Road property was first in the city’s system after a complaint on Aug. 29. One month later it was put in abatement. The process to actually clean the property takes about nine to 10 months, Jackson said.
“We don’t have the authority to go on to a private property unless we follow the law,” Jackson said.
The process for cleaning properties in Mobile is complaint-driven. That means if a person wants a home demolished or a lot picked up, then the citizen has to call 311 and file a complaint. That’s when the city begins tracking down the owner(s) of the property, which can prove difficult. That person is then cited and must go to environmental court. Typically the first citation leads to the owner being given a violation and a certain amount of time to clean up. This can continue for some time before the city is able to clean the property.
Assistant City attorney Keri Coumanis oversees the Neighborhood Renewal Program and knows the issues that come up when trying to de-trash Mobile. A piece of abandoned property often comes with tax liens and other baggage that make the cost of the property more than its value.
That’s where Neighborhood Renewal Program comes in. Blighted properties that have three years of tax delinquency can be purchased if the buyer plans to rebuild, rehabilitate and/or beautify.
Coumanis said the program, which focuses on three neighborhoods — Texas Hills (South Oakleigh), Martin Luther King Heritage (the Bottom) and Oakdale, — and said a former blighted lot is now being transformed into a backyard.
“At 118 N. Catherine, the property had been on the city blight list since 2002. There was a house on it, but it had been demolished,” Coumanis said. “So, homeowners whose house is adjacent cleared the title through the city. They are going to use a portion of the property to serve as a backyard. They’re going to landscape and build a fence.
“With all the liens, it’s doubtful they would have even gotten the title. It was more than $200,000 to clear the title.”
Coumanis said the city has seen great success in the South Oakleigh and Bottom neighborhoods, but Oakdale hasn’t had as many properties purchased. Though she couldn’t go into detail, Coumanis said the new administration is looking into solutions that can help the issue of blight in the area.
Over the years Mobile has become a city where it is not uncommon to see people throw trash from cars, or otherwise litter the roadways. Director of Communications and External Affairs George Talbot said the city administration is making litter one of its top issues.
“The issue of litter and blight is a top priority for the administration. We are conducting a comprehensive review to determine the scope of the problem and the resources available to combat it,” he said. “Once that review is completed, we’ll develop a plan to include all relevant city departments and private groups in a coordinated effort to clean up our city. In the meantime, Mayor Stimpson is encouraging all Mobilians to join him in the effort to reclaim our parks, neighborhoods and waterways, one piece of litter at a time.”
Mobile may have to clean up its act or lose nearly $500,000.
On May 3, ADEM filed a request as part of their civil lawsuit, which was filed in December 2012, against the city in Mobile County Circuit Court asking it to levy up to $475,000 in fines against Mobile.
ADEM is also asking the court to appoint an administrator to be in charge of the city’s stormwater management program if Mobile still has problems in six months. The $475,000 fines, if levied, would be split into two groups — $300,000 going to the Pollution Control Grant Fund, which ADEM gives as grants for cities and counties to remove trash from waterways, and $175,000 to the state agency. The $300,000 could end up supporting programs in other Alabama cities.
The matter was set to go before Judge Ben Brooks on Dec. 16, but it has been continued until Feb. 7, 2014.
On Nov. 15, Stimpson was hopeful that the change in administration would help the city escape a costly judgment.
“I’m hopeful that ADEM realizes there is a change in approach at the city now,” he said. “We’re hoping they realize this administration wants to make cleaning up Mobile a priority for everyone.”
Haskins offered a solution to littering Mobilians can do from the comfort of their car.
“One way (to stop littering) is to call our Litterbug Hotline at 208-6025 to report littering from a vehicle. Or you can volunteer and join a group to help clean up litter,” he said. “Litter sometimes happens by chance or on purpose but we all share in the responsibility to help keep Mobile beautiful.”