Two outgoing members of the Mobile City Council worked together to kill proposed zoning regulations, leaving nearly six years of work and an interesting legal question in their wake.
After a public hearing and subsequent debate on the proposed Unified Development Code (UDC) that took more than two and a half hours, the vote to approve the new regulations failed due to lack of a supermajority.
It was the dissenting votes of Councilwoman Bess Rich and Councilman Fred Richardson that killed the legislation. Council Vice President C.J. Small, Councilman John Williams, Councilman Joel Daves and Councilwoman Gina Gregory all voted in favor. Former Councilman Levon Manzie’s seat remains vacant after Mayor Sandy Stimpson’s failed attempt to temporarily appoint Jeanette Manzie, Levon’s mother.
Rich, who leaves council Nov. 1, said she understands the sentiment from those in favor of the new regulations that getting a perfect zoning document would be impossible; however, she called this attempt by Stimpson’s administration “far from perfect.” She blamed zoning issues for being a reason residents were leaving Mobile.
“We keep losing residents and one reason is their quality of life is put at risk,” Rich said. “Your quality of life is essential.”
Rich said the proposed regulations had “so many flaws” and she felt the needs of neighborhoods were being ignored. Accessory buildings being allowed by right in residential areas was one example she gave of the flaws within the document. If property owners in single-family residential zones are allowed to build additional structures they can then rent out, Rich argued, those zones are no longer single-family residential zones.
Shayla Beaco, executive director of Build Mobile, whose team developed the new regulations with some outside help, defended the move on the structures also known as mother-in-law suites.
Beaco previously said as the population ages, more and more cities are allowing these types of structures in a residential setting to give caregivers an opportunity to move members of that elderly population in and give them a more financially feasible option than traditional nursing or care homes.
Richardson, who is also retiring from council Nov. 1, also argued that accessory structures should not be allowed by right. He said residents should have a say over whether their neighbors are allowed to build them.
“If it’s not good for the neighborhoods, I’m not voting for it,” he said. “Residential is the highest form of zoning and these laws were created to protect residents from industry and business.”
Daves and Williams supported moves to delay the UDC vote for three weeks initially and then three months, but both motions failed due to lack of a supermajority.
A holdover of more than a week would’ve forced the next council, with four new members, to consider the zoning regulations. While councilors agreed that would be the way to go, Rich and Richardson still voted against the moves.
This is when the council and Stimpson entered “unprecedented” territory. After the votes to delay a decision failed, Stimpson requested his support and sponsorship for the UDC be removed. In the minds of those within the administration, this would remove it from the agenda.
The reason for the belief that Stimpson’s removal of his support would, in effect, remove the item from the agenda is because, in a previous power struggle with the administration several years ago, councilors amended an ordinance that required every item on the agenda to be sponsored by either a member of the council or the mayor. Therefore, without a sponsor, city attorney Ricardo Woods argued, the item would automatically be removed from consideration.
“The item must have three votes of council, including the [vice] president, to be added back to the agenda,” Woods told councilors.
However, council attorney Chris Arledge argued there was no rule specifically stating the item would be automatically removed upon the withdrawal of Stimpson’s sponsorship. This allowed Rich and Richardson to sponsor the new zoning code and force a vote on it.
It’s unclear what will happen to the proposed regulations now that the council has killed them. Councilors believed the mayor could simply resubmit the new regulations to the Planning Commission and start the public process all over again. However, it’s unclear if Stimpson’s office will respect the vote, since Woods argued the item had been successfully taken off the agenda.
A city spokesman said the administration was reviewing all of its options and hadn’t made a decision yet on how to proceed. A short time after the meeting Stimpson released a statement saying he was disappointed by the actions of Rich and Richardson.
“Today, the Unified Development Code was supported by a majority of City Council members, three of whom have been elected to remain on the council after November 1,” he said in the statement. “It is a shame that two outgoing council members would use one of their final votes to obstruct progress in our city without a mandate from citizens. It is also concerning that these same councilors would sidestep the council’s own rules in an effort to derail five years of hard work by city staff, community groups and stakeholders from across Mobile.”
Before the vote, Williams asked Richardson and Rich to amend the regulations and change the things they didn’t like about it. Neither offered any. Williams also argued that sending the regulations back to the Planning Commission wouldn’t change much since they’ve already approved them as is.
“The Planning Commission already saw it and already made the changes they wanted to make,” he said. “It’s not going to change if we give it back to them. We need to keep it in the hands of the council.”
Gregory searched for a silver lining with the situation before the council moved on to other items.
“I’m sorry to see this happen,” she said. “The mayor can reapply and send it back to the Planning Commission. It gives an opportunity to new councilors to take ownership of it. I don’t want all the work we’ve seen in this city go for naught.”
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