After almost two years of discussion and public hearings, the Mobile Planning Commission on Thursday recommended a spate of new amendments to the zoning regulations applied to petroleum storage tanks along the west side of the Mobile River.
The new regulations, which included a revised minimum setback and a change to the notification process, either went too far, or didn’t go far enough, depending on who was asked.
The main issue on both sides involved the new 1,000-foot minimum setback from a tank to the nearest residential structure. Industry professionals argued the current setbacks of 25 feet to 200 feet, depending on material were adequate.
Steve Gordon, president of industry advocacy group Keep Mobile Growing, said the “excessive” new setback would hamper the port and the businesses already there because it would put them at a disadvantage when compared to other regional ports, which aren’t as regulated.
“I think the system works and I don’t see why new ordinances are needed,” he said. “It’s going to impact the city …”
Alabama Port Authority spokeswoman Judy Adams agreed, saying the existing process was not broken and said there were many denied applications to prove it.
By the request of Planning Commissioner Shirley Sessions, the commission did make a change on Tuesday that explicitly gave them the authority to increase the setback on a case-by-case basis. Even with the last-minute change, environmental activists and residents opposed to tanks, did not think the measure went far enough.
“I’d like to see something more definitive,” Africatown spokesman Joe Womack said. “Case-by-case is OK, but case-by-case has to be voted on.”
Mobile Bay and Alabama Sierra Club member David Underhill took it a step farther, saying the newest amendment was simply lip service.
“If they really wanted to protect AfricaTown they would have changed it,” Underhill said. “If they wanted to just make it look like they were protecting AfricaTown they would do what they did.”
Underhill said that extending the setback from the structure itself, instead of the property line, allows for businesses to move in, buy up and then demolish structures in order to fall in line with the regulations. He added that counting from the base of the tank, instead of the property line, allows for the “most dangerous” elements of an operation — petroleum-loaded train cars — to be closest to residential areas.
“The railroad tanker parking and unloading facilities can be within the buffer zone,” he noted.
Mobile Baykeeper Executive Director Casi Callaway said she had hoped the commission would take up the recommendation from its citizens’ ad-hoc committee of a 1,500-foot setback. She added that the “nod” to increasing the 1,000-foot setback on a case-by-case basis was already part of the law.
Callaway, a member of the ad-hoc committee, did commend the commission for its efforts to research the issue and allow the community to weigh in.
Another amendment requires planning staff to notify property owners within a 1,500-foot radius of a tank farm property line of a filed application. Callaway said she approved of that measure.
Councilwoman Bess Rich, who was also in attendance, said she approved of the new notification rules, adding that those rules should be in place for all zoning applications. She said she would reserve judgment on the rest until the City Council takes up the issue.
The recommendations will now be forwarded to the Council, which will make the final decision.