For evidence the Planning Commission subcommittee on above-ground oil storage tanks had listened to both sides of the argument when considering amendments to the city’s related ordinance, one needed to look no further than the reaction of those on opposing sides.
Both Mobile Baykeeper Casi Callaway and Steve Gordon, president of Keep Mobile Growing said they were pleased — a show of unity amidst what has been at times a controversial issue.
During the meeting, subcommittee members discussed various aspects they’d like to see in an amended ordinance that would be presented to the Planning Commission and the City Council for approval.
Callaway applauded the subcommittee for taking to heart the input it received from the community during the process.
For instance, committee members James Watkins, Shirley Sessions and Allan Cameron agreed with the suggestion more transparency was needed from applicants in future reviews.
Callaway said the procedural change aligns perfectly with recommendations a board of council and mayor appointed resident and business leaders were looking at.
“The ad-hoc workgroup wanted much, much more transparency,” Callaway said.
Watkins suggested increasing the amount of information a heavy industrial or hazmat applicant must include in an application.
“We need applicants to provide information related to what people have told us about,” he said. “Like what’s going to be stored at the site. We need to understand, as a commission, what they intend to store there.”
Watkins also suggested that if the classification of material being stored is changed, the applicant would have to come back before the Planning Commission for approval.
The commission chairman also wants applicants, in any new ordinance, to tell members what permits will be required for operation of their business.
“They don’t have to pull them for us,” Watkins said. “We just want to understand who has regulatory oversight.”
Future applicants for use of an property zoned for heavy industrial use could also be required to mention in an application how the material they’re going to be storing is transported, Watkins said, because that could impact “traffic, neighbors and public safety.”
“That addresses the concerns of some of the neighborhoods,” Commission attorney Doug Anderson said. “You can’t control that, but you can take it into consideration.”
Committee members also recognized that while the approval system isn’t broken, there is room for a more robust attempt to notify affected residents.
“I agree with what they said about the system not being broken,” Gordon said. “I’m not surprised by the outcome. I always believed the system was good.”
In terms of enhancing the notification system, Watkins suggested increasing the distance that staff is required to notify nearby residential property owners from 300 feet to 1,000 feet. He also suggested placing a copy of the application on the city’s website, or even publishing a notice in a local newspaper.
Anderson advised against publishing in a local newspaper, due to a question of reliability and overall cost. Watkins explained that the notice would be small, similar to notices the Alabama Department of Transportation publishes.
City Planner Richard Olsen said staff members would be able to supply copies of applications to anyone who requested a copy, as well.
Sessions said she was concerned that the current ordinance regulating oil storage tanks didn’t take quality of life, or public health and safety issues enough into account. Looking at a map of current heavy industrial zoning, she suggested addressing setback requirements, when an I-2 property is near residential.
Watkins suggested setting a minimum setback and give the Planning Commission some discretion over each application, as it comes forward.
“I think each application should stand on its own,” he said. “That’s what I get some heartburn over, coming up with one large number.”
Watkins also recommended that each site plan should reference the closest residential property line and the setbacks should be measured from where the storage facilities are on each property, rather than just the property lines.
Committee members also agreed to review and possibly update the definitions of hazardous materials as they appear in the current ordinances.
Members set a tentative date for another discussion on Thursday, April 23. A time has not yet been set.