Residents of a historic black Spring Hill neighborhood spoke out during Tuesday’s Mobile City Council meeting against a plan to rezone property owned by a local Catholic church to allow for veterinary clinic.
The council could vote as early as Tuesday, Oct. 29 on the rezoning from residential to commercial of the property at Springhill Avenue and Knowles Street in the Sand Town area, following a lengthy public hearing on the subject where seven residents each spoke for and against the move.
Barbara Smith, president of the Sand Town Community Action Group, told councilors she was opposed to the rezoning because it would not benefit residents of the larger Spring Hill area or the historic black neighborhood that has been settled since the early 1800s.
“We are not second-class citizens,” she said. “We are fighting for our very existence, our homes.”
Smith also accused developers of attempting to keep the plans secret, saying residents were only notified by a flier after everything had been drawn up. City Planner Margaret Pappas told councilors residents were sent notice within 10 days of the initial Planning Commission meeting where the rezoning was discussed.
Councilman C.J. Small noted that as the property is currently zoned, only planning approval would be needed to allow a cemetery on it. He asked Smith if she would prefer a cemetery on the property. Knowles Street residents already live near a cemetery.
“The people in that cemetery don’t bark,” she said.
Five white members of the Planning Commission approved the rezoning, District 7 Councilwoman Gina Gregory said, after a public hearing and after planning staff had recommended it for denial. This has led to some concerns from neighbors, she told councilors.
“Diversity is an issue,” she said.
Pappas said the commission uses the staff recommendation and its report as a factor, along with the public hearing, to determine the merits of an action.
The Rev. W. Bry Shields, pastor of St. Ignatius Catholic Parish, told councilors the property has been on the market for eight years and the owners of Spring Hill Animal Clinic were only the second group to make an offer on the property during that time. The church bought the land from the family of Earnestine Allen in 2000 with no real vision for it, Shields said, but the construction of ball fields or elderly housing was discussed. None of those plans came to fruition, he said.
Now, the church has a deal to sell the property for close to $500,000 to the clinic, contingent upon the rezoning from residential to low-density commercial. The money from the deal would go back into the church, Shields said.
The proposed clinic would be built in the creole cottage style and be equipped with seven indoor/outdoor kennels and runs, co-owner Dr. Mary Edmonds said. The kennels would be built mostly under the clinic, due to the slope of the property, and would be hidden from nearby residents by a 20-foot wooded buffer and an 8-foot brick retaining wall, civil engineer William Lada said.
In response to the buffer being double what is required for a business abutting residential property in the zoning ordinance, Smith said the buffer would not block the noise coming from the clinic.
“A 20-foot buffer is not going to prevent the sound of barking dogs,” she said.
Dogs would only be outside while supervised and the owners have worked out a plan to not let dogs outside during church services, weddings or funerals, Edmonds said.
“In no way do we want animals to interfere with church services,” she said.
The operating hours of the clinic would be from 8 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., Monday through Friday, and it would not be open on weekends, she said.
“We want to keep this as low impact and neighborhood friendly as we can for as long as we’re here,” she said. “This is our environment too. It’s important to us as well as for the environment of our patients.”
Prompted by Small, who told the crowd he owns two dogs, Edmonds said she would be willing to limit the number of possible uses of the property to help alleviate concerns of residents.
If the residents are concerned about noise from pets, B.J. Lyon, an attorney for the applicant, said leaving it residential and subjecting it to a possible 24-lot subdivision would be a worse idea.
“In that event there’s no buffer,” Lyon said. “Homes can have dogs. Two dogs per home is 48 dogs. There would be very few dogs, if any, allowed outside in the kennel runs. It would be seven dogs at most.”
For pastor Robert Brown, vice president of the Sand Town group, there are other areas better suited for the clinic than right near the historic black neighborhood. For instance, there is property off of Moffett Road and on Bit and Spur Road that would work better for what the applicants are trying to do.
“I think this will change our neighborhood and we don’t want that,” he said.
Edmonds has argued that the property in question is one of the only available along Springhill Avenue until it gets near the interstate, and none of those are commercial.
Councilman Fred Richardson noted that the residents speaking in favor didn’t live near the site, while those speaking against all lived in or near the neighborhood.
“I’m listening for the speakers to say ‘I’d be happy to move the clinic near my house,’” he said.
Following the public hearing, Edmonds requested a vote on the rezoning be delayed for two weeks so the clinic owners could negotiate with residents, Gregory told her colleagues. While the Planning Commission can recommend rezoning applications, the final authority for all rezoning applications is the City Council.
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