Overlay districts, which would create special zoning rules for two neighborhoods in the city, were the biggest sources of debate during a more than two hour discussion of the proposed Unified Development Code Tuesday afternoon for a Mobile City Council committee Tuesday afternoon.
A committee consisting of all the members of the council, referred to as a committee of the whole, held a public hearing on the new set of zoning rules. The most hotly debated topics during the meeting included special overlay districts for the Village of Spring Hill and Africatown.
A proposed amendment to Africatown’s overlay district would create a “safe zone” to prevent heavy industry from further encroaching on residential homes. Advocates, like Mobile Environmental Justice Action Coalition President Ramsey Sprague, said the special zone would help protect the “sacred ground” of Africatown from the expansion of neighboring heavy industry. One way a “safe zone” would accomplish this, he said, is to designate the existing industries in Africatown as “non-conforming,” which would prevent the businesses from increasing their footprint, but would allow them to operate on a continual basis.
“A safe zone would not hurt the footprint of current businesses,” he said. “The vast majority of (Africatown and Plateau residents) support it.”
A “safe zone” would also allow commercial development and tourism in the neighborhood to flourish, Sprague said, capitalizing on the finding of the country’s last ship to carry enslaved Africans across the Atlantic Ocean.
The Alabama State Port Authority and maritime industry groups spoke in opposition to the “safe zone,” opting instead for the council to pass the UDC and its restrictions as it pertains to the overlay district as written.
A sticking point for the groups, Steve Gordon, president of Keep Mobile Growing pointed out, is whether a “safe zone” can limit changes a business can make to its production process, if it’s under threat of being closed down for two years. The same worry comes if the plant is hit by a storm that may close the facility for two years or more.
If those businesses that produce cargo for the port cease to exist, Mobile’s economy could be damaged and federal funds related to tonnage brought through the Alabama State Port Authority docks could go to other places, ASPA spokeswoman Judith Adams told councilors.
“We strongly encourage you to pass the UDC as it is presented and move on,” she said.
The cargo/vessel business at the port creates 160,000 direct and indirect jobs statewide, Adams said. It has an economic value to the state of $26 billion. In the county, she estimated that the business contributes to 35,000 direct or indirect jobs and “hundreds of millions” of dollars throughout the county.
As written, the amendment would prevent a current industry from opening back up if it’s shuttered for two years. However, District 2 Councilman William Carroll said he’s hoping to rewrite the language to make both sides “amenable.”
“The intent is not to destroy or hurt businesses,” he said. “The intent is to create a safety zone to protect the community. There has to be some kind of mean we can get to.”
Jarrod White, an attorney representing maritime interests and the port, said the UDC as proposed goes far enough to protect residents from industry. In the proposed overlay district, setbacks between industry and residential property lines were increased from 10 feet to 30 feet. New industrial zones are viewed by staff under the new UDC as not suitable for the overlay and there are 1,500-foot setbacks for dangerous industry through “special scrutiny” areas, White said.
Carroll asked if a business could expand outside its footprint without a “safe zone. White said it could, but it would have to alter its planned unit development (PUD) through the Planning Commission and seek a rezoning through the City Council. White noted the only industrial property left undeveloped in the area is the old International Paper property.
“So, they can leave their footprint,” Carroll said. “That’s the issue here in the community. Businesses can come out of their footprint, given the right process.”
Several speakers who live in Africatown spoke in favor of the UDC as written. One of those speakers was Cleon Jones, chairman of the Africatown Redevelopment Corporation. Jones said some of the businesses in question did “dump” on the community, but they “served a purpose.” In many cases, he said, those industries created jobs for the area. Jones also criticized the faction seeking a safe zone because some led a charge against a proposed farmer’s market the Africatown Redevelopment Corporation wanted to bring to the neighborhood.
“The people you’re going to hear talk are against almost everything,” he told councilors. “I implore you to talk to the community.”
Village of Spring Hill
The debate over whether additional restrictions on businesses within the Village of Spring Hill would be made mandatory was another sticking point in the discussion over the proposed zoning rules.
The debate pitted business owners in favor and members as well as supporters of the Village of Spring Hill board at odds with residents of the Sand Town community and other business owners.
Some residents of a historically Black and indigious part of the Village of Spring Hill, known as Sand Town, asked council to keep the overlay district ordinances optional out of fear that the community would be split in half and commercial property would be developed in areas where the overlay wasn’t mandatory and force them from their homes, according to Barbara Smith, president of Sand Town Commuity Action Group.
“The Village of Spring Hill wants to split our community in half,” she said. “Businesses will locate next door to our houses in the historically Black neighborhood and the Black residents will continue to disappear.”
Linda St. John, president of the Village of Spring Hill, told councilors making the additional requirements for businesses mandatory would clarify the vision the village started with when the plan was first developed 16 years ago.
“We never intended the ordinances to be optional forever,” St. John said. “Optional ordinances do not incentivize development.”
The requirements impact four commercial areas and current businesses will not be affected unless they redevelop more than 50 percent of their footprint, she said.
“The overlay does not include residential property,” St. John said.
The overlay district would include a more stringent requirement for businesses to provide sidewalks. This would help the Spring Hill area become more walkable and in turn would make it more “liveable,” Cam Marston told councilors. It’s the liveability of a neighborhood the “next generation” homebuyer is looking for, he said.
“If these ordinances don’t become mandatory, liveability becomes less and less and we lose the liveability wars, if you will, to our friends in Baldwin County,” Marston said.
District 4 Councilman Ben Reynolds said he would introduce an amendment to the UDC next week that would require owners of short term rental properties to come before the Planning Commission for approval. Reynolds said he would also require home daycares with six or fewer kids — which would be allowed by right in the new document — to be required to get approval from the Planning Commission before operating.
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