Two proposed planning districts in unzoned areas of Baldwin County are being disputed, although voters overwhelmingly approved one in a quiet referendum held last week. The other will only make it to a ballot if organizers can obtain additional valid signatures on a petition that was submitted without the minimum required number.
In proposed Planning District 11 north of Magnolia Springs, County Administrator Wayne Dyess said organizers obtained 178 valid signatures on a petition that requires 195. According to state statute, the citizen-driven effort will have 60 days to obtain the signatures of at least 17 more currently registered voters before the petition can be certified for an election. The Baldwin County Commission formally rejected the petition Tuesday.
But at a work session Monday, the commission was warned it may face a civil rights lawsuit over proposed Planning District 19 south of Fairhope, which was approved by a margin of 296-28 in a special election held Dec. 28.
“What we have is a classic case of voter dilution,” said Willie Williams, a Daphne resident and president of the Baldwin County Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration Committee Inc. While he does not reside in the district, Williams said he represents members of Fairhope’s historically Black neighborhoods around Twin Beech Road, and he believes they should have been given the right to vote.
Dyess explained that according to a local law effective in 2010, the boundaries for planning districts “shall correspond to a voting precinct or precincts in the county unless the county governing body determines that the use of voting precinct boundaries is not feasible.”
Proposed Planning District 19 encompasses most of Baldwin County Voting Precinct 10, but carves out much of the lower-income Black areas while incorporating most of the higher-income White neighborhoods in Point Clear, between Battles Road and County Road 32. Still, Williams said, several Black property owners who have never supported zoning measures were roped into the proposed district, while the majority bloc of Black voters in Precinct 10 who defeated a similar effort more than a decade ago were excluded from the most recent election.
“This was a scheme to gain an advantage over a minority community that is well versed on the pros and cons of zoning. You can’t go around and gerrymander a planning district in order to succeed.”
In regards to the “feasibility” of following voting precinct boundaries, Dyess later explained that the planning director who drew the boundaries for Planning District 19 is no longer with the county, but “he worked with the citizens who requested the change and he presented his recommendation to the County Commission.”
Williams joined district resident Willard Holliman to argue that Black residents within the district were not properly informed about the proposal, not adequately notified about the election, and not told why the polling location was moved from its usual location at St. Francis At The Point Church to a new location at Bethel Lutheran Church. Holliman said to add insult to injury, the voting machines were placed inside the sanctuary rather than a less-sacred area of the building such as the fellowship hall or vestibule, and the influx of visitors to the historically Black church during a pandemic caused an uproar among the congregation.
Dyess pointed a finger at Probate Judge Harry D’Olive, who ultimately determines “where, how and when” zoning elections take place. He reiterated that zoning is a “citizen-driven process,” fueled by people who want to have a voice in how things are developed in the neighborhood.
Commission Chairman Joe Davis seemed alarmed by the circumstances of the election, and urged his colleagues “to have a thorough discussion about how to move forward.”
“This particular district has issues that have far-reaching consequences, so we need to consider taking a deep breath, taking a step back, getting all the ducks in a row and getting the people around the table that can make this move forward to everyone’s satisfaction,” he said.
But Commissioner Jeb Ball suggested that because the process is citizen-driven, the county is absolved of any legal repercussions regarding the election. County attorney Brad Hicks tentatively agreed, adding the county “has a very specific statute” about how the elections take place.
“I’m not aware of any violations of the Voting Rights Act,” he said. “I have to look into it, but this is not a script y’all write. This is something the Legislature adopted that gives the citizens the right to pursue zoning districts. Anybody in any of these unzoned areas can petition at any time for zoning and if they meet the threshold, we don’t really have the right to stop them from doing that.”
On Tuesday, D’Olive canvassed and certified the vote for Planning District 19. Dyess said the next step would be for the commission to appoint a five-member advisory committee, which would be tasked with holding public hearings to create proposed zoning ordinances. The ordinances will need to be approved by the Planning Commission and County Commission before they can be enforced, and affected property owners will be allowed to provide input every step of the way.
But Williams still called foul.
“This was a scheme to gain an advantage over a minority community that is well versed on the pros and cons of zoning,” he said. “You can’t go around and gerrymander a planning district in order to succeed. If we take this to court, and we will take it to court, [the county] risks losing all their planning districts.”
There are currently 30 planning districts in the county, but only 18 are zoned. Aside from the proposed districts in Point Clear and outside Magnolia Springs, residents surrounding rapidly growing Foley are also gathering names on a petition for yet another election.
Probate Judge Harry D’Olive did not respond to a request for comment prior to the deadline for this report.
Press release for Zoning election
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