While some West Mobile residents are applauding the City Council’s recent move to allow the Airmont Property Owners Association to close off an access to Azalea Road, others have filed a lawsuit to reverse the decision.
The request was initially voted down Dec. 16 before it was put back on the agenda by the City Council earlier this month. Later, it was approved by a vote of 6-1, with only Councilman Fred Richardson voting against it. Councilmen Levon Manzie and C.J. Small changed their initial votes.
Members of a group of residents opposed to the closure, the Airmont/Montclaire Community Committee to Keep Montclaire Way Open, have since hired an attorney and filed a lawsuit to appeal the council’s decision in circuit court and seek an injunction to stop the action, according to spokesperson Jamie Allgood. Allgood lives in an adjacent subdivision with her father.
Seven members of the group spoke to councilors during Tuesday’s City Council meeting. Council President Gina Gregory told the residents that councilors had been advised by their legal counsel not to respond because of the pending litigation.
But first, Dr. Janice Morton Hunte, who lives on Airmont Drive, presented Mayor Sandy Stimpson and councilors with a petition asking them to reverse their decision to close off Montclaire Way.
Eaton Barnard, president of the Airmont Property Owners Association, claims crime was a big factor in the push to restrict access to the neighborhood. He said the idea to close the street came after an alleged attempted abduction of a girl from the neighborhood about four years ago.
Since, the community has dealt with burglaries, Barnard said, including one within the past two months at a house where five weapons and two televisions were stolen. Additionally, he said, petty theft has been a recurring a problem. A neighbor complained about a gas can stolen out from underneath his carport. Barnard said a power washer was taken from his own front yard, left unattended for just a few moments while his wife went in the house to get a glass of water. Another neighbor reported a missing raft while still others complain about mail being stolen from mailboxes.
“A lot of people have quit reporting it because it wasn’t worth it,” he said.
Barnard said police advised them to build the gate in order to cut down on the number of entrances and exits, and therefore limit crimes of opportunity. But Allgood and others contend the alleged crime is blown out of proportion.
“The call reports, once you break them down, are very misleading,” Allgood said. “They blame it on crime, but the crime’s not there.”
Montclaire Way resident Reginald Davis told councilors Tuesday that he was upset by the council’s decision to give in to the concerns of 26 residents and ignore the concerns of at least 80 others. He suggested the Airmont residents concerned with crime should invest in surveillance systems for their homes. He called the move to approve the Airmont request without looking at other options “drastic.”
Another opponent, Montclaire Way resident Shelly Bell, told councilors the Airmont group misrepresented facts regarding crime in the neighborhood. She said of the 35 calls for service in 2013, 19 were from burglar alarms and the majority of those were false alarms.
Allgood suggested many instances are crimes of opportunity, because several houses don’t have adequate fencing around their backyards, even though they abut an apartment complex. Barnard was quick to dismiss the claim.
He said there have been some instances of “kids climbing over the fence,” but it doesn’t explain the crime problem the neighborhood has been experiencing.
“I’m not saying that putting a bigger fence there wouldn’t be a good idea, but we’re not having problems from people peeking over the fence,” he said.
In an earlier letter to councilors, Hunte wrote a report of calls to the Mobile Police Department in 2013, showing 35 calls in the neighborhood, “the great majority of which were non-criminal activity.”
“One theft of property and one burglary does not constitute a crime wave,” Hunte wrote.
Allgood added that the reason her family moved to the neighborhood is because it’s peaceful.
Opponents of the closure also claim it will negatively impact students walking to and from Fonde Elementary School, who often cut through the neighborhood to Azalea Road using Montclaire Way.
With the route cut off, Allgood said, the students would be forced to take the busier Cottage Hill or Pleasant Valley roads to Azalea.
“It’s more dangerous,” she said.
In the letter to the council, Hunte also suggested students would “taking their lives in their hands” by walking alternate routes.
“I have tried this traverse only once in my 19 years of residence,” Hunte wrote.
Barnard questioned why elementary students would be walking to school by themselves in the first place, but added that there would still be pedestrian access to Montclaire Way.
“It’s a red herring,” Barnard said of concerns over the students. “It’s a non-issue.”
He said the idea is not to keep pedestrians from entering the neighborhood.
“Walkers are not the problem,” he said. “These people aren’t the ones robbing us.”
He said his group has tried to work with members of the other group to find amenable solutions. For instance, he said, they originally wanted to build a three-foot gate, but were told an eight-foot fence would work better with the infrastructure.
Allgood said Barnard’s group had talked of locking the gate and giving residents a key to unlock it. Barnard said there are no plans to have a locking gate.
Allgood accused the group of not following proper procedures in getting the request passed through council. She said the group didn’t understand how it went from being denied to being passed so quickly.
In the letter, Hunte complained that residents of the surrounding areas weren’t properly notified before the meetings.