Local developer John Vallas sees ghosts.
He blames previous decisions by the developer of the Publix shopping center in midtown Mobile for opposition to his plans for a residential lot connected to the project.
Vallas was granted a variance to reduce the setback to less than 10 feet from the property line for a two-story home he wants to locate on the lot, but not before hearing from a group of neighbors opposed to the move.
“The petition goes back to the Publix development and the cutting of trees,” he told members of the Board of Zoning Adjustment (BZA), referring to a stop-work order the city issued against the development. “A lot of them weren’t happy with the development. I can’t apologize for that.”
Vallas told the board that ideally he could get a vacation to allow for the 10-foot minimum side-yard setback, but said he didn’t have time for that. He also admitted he could rotate the proposed home to be in compliance, but feels it would work better in its designed configuration.
The board heard from four nearby residents who argued the request to reduce the setback would cut into a utility easement.
Grand Boulevard resident Mona Hamilton said a reduction in the easement would prevent Alabama Power trucks from accessing the area when and if the neighborhood loses power.
As for the Publix decision, Hamilton said it was a done deal before she moved to Mobile from California.
“I’m more concerned about the property being right on top of my house,” she said. “It’s a two-story house that will look over onto my property.”
Hamilton admitted the property she lives on already took advantage of vacated right-of-way to include a pool, but that decision was made before she bought it. She also claimed she was interested in buying the Vallas property, but was never given an opportunity.
Grand Boulevard resident Mark Fenton said if the variance is granted, the power company would have to remove poles in order to fix issues with the power.
Board member Brooks Milling argued a setback from the property line to where the future house would sit would have no bearing on the utility easement, as a future owner could still build a fence at the property line.
Grand Boulevard resident Ryan Hedlund said the granting of a variance in this case would set a bad precedent. He said the purchaser of the property knew about the rules when buying the property.
“I’m asking the rules be enforced,” Hedlund said.
Milling argued that a reduced setback was not out of character for the neighborhood.
“We get a fair amount of these requests within the midtown area because of the historic nature,” he said. “The majority of the structures are closer, or are right on the property line.”
In response, Hedlund said he could “cherry-pick” examples of homes farther from the property line if given the time.
Marvin Jansen, who spoke on behalf of his son’s property, which is adjacent to the lot in question, told board members the requested setback wouldn’t allow access to the backyard from the side of the house.
In other business, the board denied the appeal of Dorothy Wells to stop construction of a parking lot on Tuscaloosa Street for the Pulmonary Associates clinic.
The lot was originally approved by the Planning Commission, but after hearing an appeal the Mobile City Council sent it back to the board for further study. At some point, Planning Commission attorney Doug Anderson and City Council attorney Wanda Cochran decided it was appropriate for the parking lot to proceed through a so-called “special plan,” which Anderson said had never been used before.
The “special plan” application submitted on March 7 was approved March 8 and didn’t need commission approval said Evans Crowe, an attorney representing Wells.
Given that the former Alabama Pain Clinic — the future site of Pulmonary Associates — already had a shared parking agreement with the former Rite Aid site on Springhill Avenue, Crowe argued the special plan was unnecessary. He also argued that a 1990 rezoning of the property on Tuscaloosa Street from residential to business was inappropriate because residents at the time, including Wells, were not properly notified.
Anderson argued the available documentation doesn’t prove residents weren’t notified, it just doesn’t confirm that they were. He and board members also said the BZA was not the appropriate venue to ask for the zoning to be re-examined.
Despite Crowe’s argument, Anderson said Pulmonary Associates doesn’t have to demonstrate a need for the special plan to be appropriate. As for the shared parking agreement, Larry Smith, a civil engineer on the project, said the agreement with the former Rite Aid lot is only good for eight years and property owners don’t want to extend it.
Wells also mentioned concern for a historic, pre-1850s home, which currently sits on the Tuscaloosa Street property. Wells said he was worried it would be torn down and trees removed.
Smith said the parking lot is designed around the trees and project architect Dan Bowden said the house would be relocated.
The board also delayed for nine months a vote on an administrative appeal of its decision to force Cooper Marine and Timberlands to seek planning approval to handle coal at its riverside facility. Cooper Marine contends coal is not a hazardous material and thus doesn’t require planning approval to be stored at an industrial site.
Stephen Harvey, an attorney for Cooper, asked for the decision to be delayed until it can be granted time in circuit court. Judge Ben Brooks has scheduled a status hearing on the case for Friday, May 18, Anderson said.