After years of delays and weeks’ worth of debate, opponents of Mobile’s freshly amended petroleum storage tank ordinance say the most significant changes happened behind closed doors.
The Mobile City Council approved the new ordinance last week. It requires tanks within a designated portion of the west side of the Mobile River to be at least 1,500 feet from the nearest residential zone, school or church whether inhabited or not. The ordinance also tweaks the city’s notification protocol for residents affected by a new tank application, but also contains a “grandfather” clause loosening some of the restrictions on established tank operators, or on land that has already had proper planning approval.
Councilwoman Bess Rich was the lone dissenter on the so-called compromise ordinance, which she said was too far removed from the version approved earlier by the Mobile Planning Commission.
Rich said she was invited to meet alone with representatives of Keep Mobile Growing, an industry advocacy group, and Mobile Baykeeper, an environmental advocacy group, weeks before the final draft of the altered ordinance was first published and then presented to the City Council. Rich said the meeting lasted roughly 30 minutes. While she thought the new version possibly would first be introduced to the Planning Commission, she said, instead she was “blindsided.”
“I never dreamt it would be the ordinance the City Council would vote [on],” Rich said. “I didn’t think it was protocol. I honest to goodness didn’t think that was the one that got advertised, or the one citizens voiced their opinions on.”
For instance, Rich said, she was troubled that the “grandfather” clause was never discussed publicly. She said the interpretation of that clause was “problematic.”
“I think it’s flawed, but it’s the will of the council and they’re comfortable with it,” Rich said.
The council also didn’t take any health concerns into account, despite hearing arguments for doing so by various local doctors, including Dr. Bert Eichold, Mobile County health officer, which also worries Rich.
Local attorney Pete Burns said he, too, was upset over the council’s decision to go against the wishes of the medical professionals.
“To just ignore the medical community is shocking,” Burns said.
Meanwhile, Mobile Baykeeper Executive Director Casi Callaway called the hammering out of details with the industry group “lobbying,” adding she was surprised about Rich’s reaction to it.
“I’m pretty sure that’s what everyone does,” Callaway said.
The groups met with all the councilors, either alone or a couple at a time, Callaway said, where it appeared councilors seemed open to the idea of compromise.
“Most were fairly happy that industry and [at least part of the] environmental community — that we could come together,” Callaway said.
Additionally, her ideas for the changes, which included an increase from 1,000 feet to 1,500 feet to the setback near the Africatown area, were ones she advocated for.
“I pressed those changes to the Planning Commission from the podium,” she said. “They were line-item specific changes. When we got the last version it still had a 1,000-foot setback and was still missing other components that were drivers for us.”
The 1,500-foot minimum setback for Africatown was also discussed in the initial citizens’ ad hoc committee on above-ground storage tanks, but was changed to 2,500 feet at some point in the ad hoc committee process. Callaway said it was further changed in the Planning Commission document to 1,000 feet.
Baykeeper and Keep Mobile Growing began working on a compromise in November. The groups started negotiating everything, but major sticking points for the environmental side, Callaway said, were the presence of vapor recovery in the tanks — which was not successful — and the 1,500-foot setback. Regarding vapor emissions, Callaway said the industry will work closely with them to stem any problems with odors.
“The 1,500-foot setback protected Africatown and that was huge for us,” she said.
Callaway applauded the spirit of compromise.
“This is something Mobile should be proud of,” she said. “It’s a win-win for everybody.”
Jarrod White, an attorney for Keep Mobile Growing, agreed.
“I’m proud of the efforts to compromise,” he said. “It’s how the system should work.”
As for charges that the public’s interests were not considered, White said “there’s not a single recommendation from the Planning Commission [version] that Keep Mobile Growing said should not be part of the amendment.” The ordinance included “changes both groups could live with,” White said.
“To say there was a lack of debate and transparency is absolutely incorrect,” he said.
Brenda Bolton, a concerned citizen, member of the Mobile Environmental Justice Action Coalition and former ad hoc committee member, said the “grandfather” clause is the “biggest departure” from other city zoning ordinances because it allows for new tanks to be built within an operator’s current footprint without additional planning approval. Even in the Downtown Development District — the newest major zoning change, passed in 2014 — “doesn’t allow additions or expansions without planning approval,” Bolton said.
“When we are unprepared for a change, that represents this great of a departure from what had been in Mobile’s ordinances [before],” she said.
In addition to the public being unaware of the “grandfather” clause and other issues, Bolton said she and others she spoke with were troubled about amendments to the ordinance councilors made on the spot.
“This sort of flies in the face of transparency and having an engaged community,” she said. “They formed an ad hoc committee and ensured the committee had public representatives … but I don’t see, in what they produced, where they honored what came out of the committee. There was too much influence from too narrow a segment of Mobilians.”
Bolton said she was also bothered by a portion of the meeting when councilors made amendments to the document before voting on it. Before one of the amendments was read aloud, White could be seen passing a piece of yellow legal pad paper to Councilman Joel Daves, but White said he was simply making suggestions regarding the wording of that particular portion of the amendment.
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