Many members of the citizens’ ad hoc committee on above-ground oil storage tanks complained last week to a Mobile Planning Commission subcommittee about not having enough time to reach a consensus on a report completed in March.

The Planning Commission subcommittee, tasked with reviewing the zoning ordinance related to above-ground oil and petroleum storage tanks, met last week with members of the ad-hoc committee in hopes of getting feedback from the group on how to move forward on the issue.

The ad-hoc committee was formed, with appointments from the City Council and Mayor Sandy Stimpson, to make recommendations as to whether the construction of the tanks should be limited within an “enhanced scrutiny area” near downtown and along the waterfront.

Until March 2015, any new application for construction of above-ground storage tanks will first come to the City Council, before going to the Planning Commission.

Planning Commission Chairman James Watkins asked ad-hoc committee members for their impressions of the report filed in March.
In the report, the committee acknowledged that public opinion was largely against construction of tank farms in the city, while industry experts sent letters to members throughout the process stating that materials have been stored in tanks and underground for years without incident.

Ad-hoc committee member Henry Seawell said he liked the idea of the committee and believed it could be revived to study other issues in the future, but he complained that time was not on their side when it came to building a consensus.

“We had excellent discussions, but very little consensus was reached,” he said. “The process was flawed. We did not have enough time to do what was needed.”

Seawell commended the group and said he’d defend any member against criticism, but didn’t agree with the process.

Committee member and Mobile Baykeeper Executive Director Casi Callaway agreed.

“We got closer to consensus, but we were artificially stopped,” she said.

For example, Callaway said she thought the group got close to a consensus on requiring a 1,500-foot setback distance for tanks. But member Thomas Bates said he never felt comfortable picking a setback distance, adding that he felt communities and neighborhoods should have a say in such specific aspects of the decision-making process.

Some on the committee said they wouldn’t have been able to come to consensus on a setback of 1,500-feet to a half-mile, while others argued the distance was the only way to ensure a safe evacuation from a nearby, inhabited building.

Member Sam St. John said a lot of research — specifically looking at what other cities allowed in terms of storage tanks — went into coming up with the number.

“We didn’t’ just pick the numbers out of a hat,” St. John said.

In its March report and again at last week’s meeting, the committee cited concerns over the notification to stakeholders in proposed heavy industrial (I-2) development such as above-ground storage tanks.

The group made several recommendations to this fact in the March report, and it was one area of consensus they did reach.

The report asked the council and Planning Commission to provide an improved, user-friendly, website to allowed citizens to use a case number for reference. The site should have I-2 development details, the staff reports from a project and agendas for upcoming meetings.

A change to the notification process was also suggested. The recommendation was to notify residents and public facilities within 1,500 feet of an I-2 project.

Watkins asked committee members about their thoughts on the current application process for heavy industry. When the council’s moratorium is scheduled to end in March, applications will go before the Planning Commission before the City Council. As it stands, all applications dealing with storage tanks must go before the commission, even if the property is zoned for I-2 development.

Most committee members agreed the notification system needed to be updated.

“There needs to be a concerted effort for getting the message out … so the community understands what’s going on,” Seawell said.

Member Gary Cowles said he was happy with the current application process.

“I think the current system works very well,” he said. “You submit an application and the application is then vetted by staff. Everything is currently looked at to see if it meets our zoning.”

Cowles said, however, he believes the commission could do a better job communicating to the public.

The current notification process has created a lack of public trust in the process, Bates said.

“Whatever you do you have to figure out what it takes (to make proper notifications),” he said. “You have to go to the affected people. People need to feel they have an opportunity for input.”

In terms of the general application process, member Brenda Bolton said better long-range planning would be helpful. She suggested the Planning Commission come up with clear, specific rules.

“Long-range planning seems to be at the heart of what we’re talking about,” Bolton said.

Callaway said while tanks shouldn’t be outlawed completely, there should be an overlay created where areas on the map are off limits to tank construction.

The commission subcommittee on the zoning of storage tanks was reformed this year, after Stimpson made several new appointments to the Planning Commission. Watkins, the Planning Commission chairman, is on the subcommittee, along with Shirley Session and Alan Cameron.

According to a statement of economic interest filed with the state ethics committee, Mayor Stimpson’s annual income includes royalties from holdings in Skylar Exploration, Exxon Mobil and Pruet Production. He said Friday that all his royalties are related to the ownership of mineral rights at a couple of oil and gas fields.

Stimpson said those interests don’t come into play and that he’s only concerned with what’s best for the city. He said responsible development comes down to a balance of pro-business and pro-environmental concerns.

“You can be pro-business and pro-environment,” he said. “They’re not mutually exclusive.”

Stimpson said he made the changes to the Planning Commission in order to have people in place who would help applicants work through the bureaucratic red tape and would help make Mobile more business friendly.