The Mobile County Commission is exploring ways to mount a legal challenge to the city of Mobile’s recent decision to roll back a five-mile planning jurisdiction bordering its city limits.
This comes after the Mobile Planning Commission voted last week to end its zoning and planning authority over the area and leave it under the responsibility of the county despite a request from county officials to delay the vote until their staff could adequately prepare for the transition.
Matthew Barclift, a county engineering manager, previously told county commissioners a significant chunk of the planning commission’s subdivision applications come from the five-mile area. To take on the extra responsibility, the county’s engineering department will need to hire additional staff, and the commission will need to update its subdivision and stormwater regulations, which take time to draft, advertise and implement.
Barclift said it’s also possible new developments in the area that have already had their plans approved may have to go back through the permitting process under the county’s authority once the change is official.
He expressed those concerns at a Sept. 6 meeting but said the commission “elected to move forward anyway.”
“Their attorney indicated that, because of the state statutes, if they did not adopt the plan by Oct. 1, they would not be able to implement it for a full year,” Barclift said. “I’m not an attorney, but there are other parts of the statute that talk about agreements between the county and the city planning commission, which I think could have been used to implement a six-month [delay].”
However, Douglas Anderson, who represents the planning commission, disagrees. He said state law governing changes to planning jurisdiction require a significant amount of notice, and the planning commission wouldn’t be able to execute the rollback until January 2020 if were to have delayed the vote past Oct. 1, 2018.
“There’s no gray area or wiggle room for the planning commission. It was all or nothing,” Anderson told Lagniappe. “If we could have delayed it six months to appease the county or to help them out, we would have certainly considered it, but we did not have that option.”
Anderson didn’t speak to why the change had to be implemented before 2019, but the decision is in line with Mayor Sandy Stimpson’s other efforts to reduce city services provided outside of Mobile’s corporate limits. Fire and emergency medical services within the three-mile police jurisdiction were rolled back earlier this year.
A 2017 proposal to halve the size of that police jurisdiction failed due to resistance from the Mobile City Council.
“This was a proposed resolution submitted by the administration,” Anderson said of the rollback. “They made the presentation, and the planning commission approved it because they agreed with the advantages it provides.”
As it stands today, the city should start seeing those advantages as of Jan. 1, 2019, but the county is still trying to find ways to reduce the burden it will be shouldering after that transition of responsibility.
During a public meeting Sept. 10, Mobile County Commission President Connie Hudson asked the county’s legal staff to evaluate what options it might have to challenge the planning commission’s decision to move forward with the rollback. Hudson said she hopes to see it at least temporarily delayed.
“It’s not that we’re trying to oppose them rolling back this jurisdiction, because I think that’s going to happen regardless,” Hudson said. “It’s just creating a hardship on the county and the people who’ve already got projects in the development phase to rush this through so soon.”
Ross said state statutes governing this particular area of the law are “ambiguous on a good day,” but agreed to look into what, if any, options the county might have moving forward. Like Hudson, Commissioner Merceria Ludgood said she doesn’t believe the city has any plans to hit the brakes unless it’s required to.
She told Barclift to proceed as if the change was finalized by incorporating any increased staffing needs into the department’s budget proposal and by moving forward with any additional ordinances or regulations the county will need to implement in order to supervise the increased area.
“I don’t have any problem exploring other options, but I want to give you the authority to move forward. I don’t want to lose any time,” Ludgood told Barclift. “When this came to us, it was a foregone conclusion. It’s going to happen. If we can negotiate some time, great, but I think we should prepare to move forward as well.”