Africatown Residents Win Over Commission to Block Zoning Variance

The Africatown Neighborhood Plan, which reflects the thoughts and wishes of Africatown residents for their community, was the motivating factor in the Mobile’s Zoning Board of Adjustment’ decision to deny a request for a zoning variance on a piece of land envisioned for future residential development and community entrance way.

The Africatown Community Development Corporation (ACDC) had requested the zoning variance to establish a long-awaited farmer’s market along Tin Top Alley next to the Africatown Bridge because the parcel, enclosed by a fence, is zoned residential, not commercial. Many Africatown residents and supporters would like to see a farmer’s market in the community, BUT NOT AT THAT LOCATION. That area is currently zoned for residential houses or apartments. The Africatown Neighborhood Plan calls for having all community entrances properly landscaped and prepared for suitable housing types that invite people to move back into the community.

On the Sept. 14  Zoom conference call, ACDC President Cleon Jones and lawyer Jarrod White represented five Africatown residents supporting the zoning variance (though, none of the other residents were on the call to speak in favor of it). White spoke against the Neighborhood Plan, arguing that it was not law nor formally adopted as city code.

But more than 20 Africatown residents and natives, supporters and organizations made calls and wrote letters in opposition to the variance and in support of the Plan’s vision for that area; at least 4 persons spoke against the zoning variance during the meeting.

In the end, ZBA Chair William Guess sided with the community opposition; the motion to approve the variance failed for lack of 5 votes, in a 4-2 decision.

The residents’ argument to defeat the variance request included 2 things: 1.) The Africatown Neighborhood Community Plan, which constitutes the authorized voice of Africatown residents in writing, and 2.) The City of Mobile’s current Zoning Code Laws. Besides the fact that Africatown residents do not want a farmers market at that location, that particular location is currently not in compliance with Mobile’s zoning code laws. As a matter of fact, that is not the only location in Africatown that is in non-compliance with Mobile’s zoning regulations (see MEJAC comments below).

Download your copy of the Africatown Neighborhood Plan HERE from the Build Mobile Long-Range Planning page of its website and turn to the following pages to see what Africatown residents want for the community:
Page 6 – Issues/Industrial Encroachment Elimination
Page 7 – Enhanced Gateways
Page 8 – Develop Housing
Page 10- Avoid Further Industrial Development in Africatown
Page 13- Provide Quality Affordable Housing
– Farmers Market on EAST SIDE OF COMMUNITY at old Credit Union

 

 

Recent Zoning History By MEJAC

The information below contains comments in a letter from the Mobiles Environmental Justice Action Coalition (MEJAC) against the Zoning Variance Request. It does an excellent job of pointing out the zoning code violations that have been allowed to exist in Africatown for years.

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City of Mobile Board of Adjustment:

The Mobile Environmental Justice Action Coalition (MEJAC) is writing to express concerns with the zoning variance application sought by the Africatown Community Development Corporation (ACDC) Agenda Case: Agenda #09. #6339/5800. BOA-001334-2020. initially heard on August 3, 2020.

We concur with the Board of Adjustment Staff Report (https://www.buildmobile.org/urban_boa/reports/096339AfricatownCommunityDevelopmentCorporationBOA-001334-2020.pdf) that notes, “The Zoning Ordinance states no variance shall be granted unless the Board is presented with sufficient evidence to find that the variance will not be contrary to the public interest, and that special conditions exist such that a literal enforcement of the Ordinance will result in an unnecessary hardship; and, no variance shall be granted where economics are the basis for the application.”

The Ordinance also states that a variance should not be approved unless the spirit and intent of the Ordinance is observed and substantial justice done to the applicant and the surrounding neighborhood.”

Our interest in intervening on this application is in prevention of substantial injustice to the surrounding neighborhood.

With respect to problems we see with the ACDC variance application, we identify that:

    • The Half a Decade Old, Ongoing Code Violations at a Key Africatown Gateway Site Should Not Receive Sanction;
    • The Scott Credit Union Building is Abandoned Yet Again;
    • The Requests for Substandard Allowances Add Insult to Injury; and
    • The Lack of Community Engagement is Unacceptable.

We document the above concerns topic by topic, as they have been raised to us by the Africatown residents and regional advocates who make up our coalition.

We raise these concerns to more fully inform the City of Mobile Board of Adjustment members as to the dynamics of how “community development” has occurred in the Africatown community so as to avoid the perpetuation of substantial injustices. Sincere community engagement does not result in a kangaroo court, and those who treat it as though it will do a disservice to both our communities of concern and our decision-makers who are tasked with telling the difference between sincere unanswered concerns of considerable consequence and frivolous political opposition.

It is the unhappy opinion of our coalition that there is little reason to approve the requested zoning variance and the radical violation of zoning and planning norms it represents.

We are unhappy, because this is yet another opportunity missed for the Africatown community through a flawed approach and fundamentally debased assumptions about what elements of the Africatown Neighborhood Plan should supersede others.

The Half a Decade Old, Ongoing Code Violations at a Key Africatown Gateway Site Should Not Receive Sanction

The parcels in question have a bizarre recent history and are currently in non-compliance with

Mobile’s zoning code. As the Board of Adjustment Staff Report points out, the lot is already completely covered with an aggregate, despite it being mostly zoned Residential-2 with a strip of Business-2.

According to the City of Mobile Code of Ordinances Sec. 64-12, “outside storage/laydown yard with aggregate surfacing—Primary or accessory use” is a permitted use only in an Industrial-1 or Industrial-2 zoning. Neither Residential-2 nor Business-2 allow for this type of land use.

The aggregate was laid concurrently to a rezoning application to the Planning Commission dating from April 2, 2015 (Item #11 – https://www.buildmobile.org/urban_pc/agendas/04022015agenda.pdf), in which Cowles, Murphy, Glover & Associates sought permission to rezone the mostly Residentially-zoned property to a B-5 Office-Distribution District so that the site may be utilized as a used military equipment junk yard.

Consideration of the permit was held over to May 7, 2015 https://www.buildmobile.org/urban_pc/minutes/1_1_1_pcminutesmarch192015.pdf), then again to October 1, 2015 (https://www.buildmobile.org/urban_pc/minutes/pcminutesmay72015.pdf), and yet again to December 17, 2015, at which time it was made clear that the applicant had withdrawn the permit application.

The B-5 re-zoning would not have solved the concern of how the aggregate had been laid at the site, because “outside storage/laydown yard with aggregate surfacing—Primary or accessory use” is not permitted in B-5 zoning.

The zoning violation has been ongoing for more than a half a decade and contributes heavily to the perception of Industrial Blight when residents and visitors enter the Africatown residential neighborhood of Plateau, because this parcel and several neighboring parcels form a key gateway into the Africatown community.

Aside from the ongoing asymmetrical application of code compliance enforcement, where Africatown residents and residential stakeholders routinely lose property due to zoning code violation enforcement, it is an insult to Africatown residents and those who seek to champion the community’s revitalization that a key gateway into the community is presented in such a way.

Goal 1 of the Africatown Neighborhood Plan (Page 7 – https://www.buildmobile.org/uploads/africatownneighborhoodplanfinaldraft.pdf) identifies three crucial milestones for its “Achieve Critical Mass” goal:

    • Enhance public and private properties with high visibility;
    • Enhance gateways; and
    • Develop new housing in strategic locations.

The ACDC variance application seeks a zoning code variance that would enshrine the industrial blight on residentially zoned property at this crucial gateway into an Africatown neighborhood.

The ACDC variance application does nothing to enhance public and private properties with high visibility.

Via perpetuation of inappropriate land use, the ACDC variance application would arguably remove a strategic location from the development of new housing.

The Scott Credit Union Building is Abandoned Yet Again

Page 13 of the Africatown Neighborhood Plan provides an illustration of an area that includes the applicant’s parcel as a site for a “farmer’s market or similar venue for selling locally-grown produce” “ either temporarily or permanently”. However, that illustration includes mixed-use housing and retail, and accounts for the use or demolition of the former Scott Credit Union building.

scott credit union Africatown
The old Scott Credit Union building in Africatown has been at the center of zoning controversies for years. Photo by Mike Brantley for AL.com

As last year’s failed ACDC zoning variance application from September 9, 2019 for the parcel across the street (Item #2 – https://www.buildmobile.org/urban_boa/agendas/v109-09-2019AGENDA.pdf), this ACDC variance application does not account for the use or demolition of the former Scott Credit Union building, and many residents and residential stakeholders wonder why the building isn’t proposed to be used for either a temporary or permanent farmer’s market. The building could provide for toilet facilities, running water, climate controlled storage, and would still get much visibility from traffic along Paper Mill Road, in addition to any signage that would be necessary along Africatown Blvd for any potential site to gain visibility from that traffic.

Instead of running water and toilet facilities, this ACDC variance application proposes two portable toilets and a portable hand washing station with no description of how long those facilities would be kept on site.

Again, the ACDC application proposes little to nothing to enhance this Africatown gateway property and, unfortunately, completely ignores an existing, if underutilized and needy, building that could provide much more appropriate accommodation for the applicant’s proposed activities.

The Requests for Substandard Allowances Add Insult to Injury

In addition to allowing the use of the split Residential- and Business-zoned parcel for a farmer’s market, the ACDC variance application seeks the following, according to page 1 of the Board of Adjustment staff report:

“PARKING: To allow substandard parking.

PARKING SURFACE: To allow substandard parking surfacing.

BUFFERING: To allow no residential buffers.

TREE PLANTING AND LANDSCAPING: To allow no landscaping or tree planting.

SETBACK: To allow reduced structure setbacks.

SIGNAGE: To allow noncompliant signage.”

The ACDC’s statement of purpose provides no justification for any of these variances except on page 4 of the Board of Adjustment staff report reading, “Development within compliance with the zoning ordinance is not feasible given the nature of a seasonal market.”

But as should be abundantly clear, allowing for “substandard” parking, parking surfaces, landscaping, signage, and buffering would very well defeat the entire purpose of the Africatown Neighborhood Plan, no matter how it is being used to justify this particular zoning variance application.

We see no reason why a coherent plan that accounts for the importance of this property’s gateway status couldn’t have been produced in two year’s time.

The Lack of Community Engagement Is Unacceptable

A color-coded map in the Africatown Neighborhood Plan shows the vast majority of the community is zoned for heavy industry (purple).

The definition of “community engagement” is currently murkily defined with respect to how it applies to Zoning and Planning in the City of Mobile, but demonstrating “community engagement” is almost always a pre-requisite when considering potentially controversial land use changes. As an agency, MEJAC has been resolute since our founding by Africatown residents and regional stakeholders in September 2013 in decrying the lack of demonstrable, accountable community engagement in both local and regional planning with respect to projects affecting the Africatown community and otherwise falling within the City of Mobile’s Africatown Planning Area, as defined by the Africatown Neighborhood Plan.

However murky the requirements are around holding “community meetings” currently, MEJAC is heartened by proposed Unified Development Code’s definitions that describe a community meeting for the purposes of zoning changes to be those held in a public facility, during the evening, during the week, with written notes and an accounting of who all participated and their contributions. These are very basic, and very necessary expectations, particularly in a community like Africatown with so many younger adults who truly wish to be meaningfully involved in the revitalization of their neighborhoods but who cannot attend meetings, however important, held during the day, during the work week.

The application in question is nearly identical to last year’s BOA-001002-2019 case submitted by the ACDC and initially heard on September 9, 2019, which dealt with several zoning variance requests for a single parcel with one zoning designation (Parcel Key: 02007731, Parcel ID: R022902440002017.001). However the application in question involves several zoning variance requests for a single parcel with two different zoning designations (Parcel Key: 00624015, Parcel ID: R022902440002017.000).

That hearing was held over to October 7, 2019 “so that the applicant and the community could discuss the proposal,” according to the September 9, 2019 meeting’s Letter of Decision. However, a proper, public community meeting was never conducted, and the variance on that parcel was not granted due to the demonstrable community opposition, the lack of attempt to provide even the semblance of public engagement, and the fact that the applicant failed to show rudimentary acknowledgement of how “the spirit and intent of the Ordinance is observed and substantial justice done to the applicant and the surrounding neighborhood” through their variance application.

Almost a year later, and the opportunity to deal with the grassroots neighborhood concerns with the previous variance application was never taken until consideration of this year’s application was again held over. But while that meeting was facilitated by the City of Mobile’s Anitra Henderson, the president of the ACDC was not present to answer questions or concerns. It was another opportunity missed.

Conclusion

Like MEJAC stated in June 2015 as part of a 66 page compendium of Mobilian citizen and scientific concerns with the then-proposed expansion of petrochemical above ground storage tanks:

“Mobile Environmental Justice Action Coalition Demands Equity and Inclusion in the Municipal Planning Process”

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Environmental Justice is the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies. EPA has this goal for all communities and persons across the nation. This will be achieved when everyone enjoys the same degree of protection from environmental and health hazards and equal access to the decision-making process to have a healthy environment in which to live, learn, and work. In this sense, community leadership must exercise what can be described as “planning justice”.”

Unfortunately, MEJAC does not see “planning justice” in this application, only the perpetuation of industrial blight, given a fig leaf.

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Read more of MEJAC’s lengthy, well-articulated proposals for new city codes affecting zoning in Africatown HERE on its website.

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