MEJAC’s UDC Version 4 Public Comment

MEJAC provided the following verbal and written Public Comments to the Mobile Planning Commission during its Unified Development Code version 4 (UDCv4) Public Hearing on February 25, 2021.

MEJAC’s UDCv4 Verbal Public Comment:

“Good afternoon, I’m Ramsey Sprague. I reside at [. . .].

I speak as President of the Mobile Environmental Justice Action Coalition. MEJAC as it is called was founded by Africatown residents in 2013 in partnership with regional advocates to address environmental racism throughout Mobile.

I am also speaking today for the Mobile Alabama NAACP President Robert Clopton, its Executive Committee, and its Environmental and Climate Justice Committee, for which I also serve as Chair.

Environmental racism is an everyday occurrence in Mobile. The pursuit of Environmental Justice requires the meaningful and informed participation of residents, decision makers, as well as subject matter experts to find just solutions to challenges caused by the zoning sins of the past that must not be repeated in the future.

Our agencies were initially excited to help inform an update to the zoning code, but we have serious reservations with elements of its public participation process as well as its timidity.

Now, the UDC’s Neighborhood Meeting standards are thoroughly reasonable. We are encouraged by the creation of the UDC’s Low-Impact Development and Riparian Buffer standards, as well as the fact of the creation of the Africatown Overlay itself.

Unfortunately, the Africatown Overlay and other elements fall short of our expectations and in some cases offend the sensibilities of our organizations and partners. For instance, the City declined to respond in writing about any concerns raised about the Africatown Overlay, but not so with other Overlay districts.

Over the last 2 years at every public participation opportunity regarding the Africatown Overlay and Industrial zoning standards, we have generally been saying that:

1) We see glaring missed opportunities in the Africatown Overlay. Like the Village of Spring Hill Overlay, which is more than 10x longer than Africatown’s, the Africatown Overlay ought to address a Purpose and Intent, which must include the abatement of Industrial blight and promotion of Residential cohesion through harmony with its future non-Residential zoned neighbors. Future non-Residential development must reinforce Africatown’s residential heritage and its integrity.

2) The Africatown Overlay, which is surrounded by water on three sides, doesn’t include any provision for waterfront conservation despite the City ostensibly supporting two water-based heritage tourism efforts in Africatown. The proposed “water dependent maritime use” exemption to all Riparian Buffer standards is too broad. If unchanged, effectively all of Africatown’s waterfront will be exempt from potential waterfront conservation standards in future development along Three Mile Creek, the Mobile River, Chickasaw Creek, and Hog Bayou. And that would be a crime against Africatown’s future.

3) The Africatown Overlay must prohibit new, non-replacement Above Ground Oil and Hazardous Substance Storage Tank creation in Africatown. If we all agree that we should be past the petrochemical tank farm expansion episode, then, please, let’s be past it.

4) Due to its controversial nature, the Coal Handling Operations ordinance should’ve been developed through a separate ordinance adoption process altogether and not as part of the Map for Mobile UDC process. Unlike protection for Africatown, the Map for Mobile saw nobody clamoring to expand dirty coal export in City zoning jurisdiction.

5) Protection Buffers are defined in code as being intended to “physically separate unlike uses and minimize light, debris and visual intrusion onto adjacent lots”. But with sometimes truly horrifying results, these goals are not accomplished by current “Protection Buffer” standards which are more or less being carried over intact into the UDC. The harrowing lessons afforded by Chin Street residents in Africatown’s Magazine Point neighborhood must be respected. The halting of private outdoor residential activity due to debris intrusion could be and should be functionally minimized by Protection Buffers designed to do what they are already defined in law to be able to do. The UDC’s Protection Buffer standards for Industrial and Maritime zones that border Residential zones are simply too weak for vulnerable neighborhoods in Mobile like Africatown among others.

And finally 6) In 2017, in its current Assessment of Fair Housing report to HUD, the City declared its intent to “accommodate and encourage access to innovative affordable housing” via then-anticipated zoning code revisions, but today’s proposed UDC standards are very often divergent from too many of the AFH report’s Metrics. Assertions to HUD about federal dollars designated for affordable housing efforts in such reports are generally considered binding, and transparency around the lack of alignment between the UDC and AFH is warranted in the least.

In conclusion, the pandemic may have complicated every aspect of life, but the urgency of Environmental Justice in Mobile has not diminished. Thank you for your time and careful consideration of our agencies’ spoken and written comments for today’s hearing.”

MEJAC’s UDCv4 Written Public Comment*:

* Each comment was provided as part of fifteen total submissions due to character limits in the written Public Comment submission portal on the Map for Mobile website.

Written Comment 1/15:
“Today, I write on behalf of the Mobile Environmental Justice Action Coalition as its President, as well as the Mobile Alabama NAACP’s President Robert Clopton, its Executive Committee, as well as the Environmental and Climate Justice Committee, for which I serve as chair. All of my written comments, submitted separately for accuracy about specific sections of the UDC, carry this authority.

We are excited to see our city revise Mobile’s antiquated zoning code. We see promise in the proposed UDC Neighborhood Meeting and Riparian Buffer standards, among other positive contributions. We wholeheartedly endorse Low-Impact Development standards and the creation of the Africatown Overlay.

However, there are a number of outstanding concerns that we share with many of our neighbors about the Africatown Overlay and other elements of the UDC that fall short of our expectations and in some cases offend our sensibilities. They will be submitted separately.”

Written Comment 2/15:

“1/10) Residential/Industrial District “Protection Buffer” standards in the proposed UDC fail residents across Mobile in vulnerable communities. Residents are suffering because the existing code is a travesty to common sense and decency and must not remain unchanged in the UDC, as is currently proposed.

UDCv4 § Article 3, Development Standards, Sec. 64-3-8 Buffers must amend “Wall or Fence” height requirements to 10 Feet where Industrial or Maritime Districts border Residential Districts. Additionally, “Protection Buffer” standards must require a Conditional Use permit for chain link Fencing in Protection Buffers where Industrial or Maritime Heavy Districts border Residential Districts.”

Written Comment 3/15:
2/10) The Africatown Overlay still allows for the potential of Above-Ground Oil Storage Tank expansion in the neighborhood, against citywide concern and support for Africatown’s permanent exemption from potential Above Ground Oil Storage Tank expansion.

During the Map for Mobile development process, the well-being of the Africatown community was cited as being of high concern by independent Mobile residents from across the city. UDCv4 § Article 11, Africatown Overlay, Sec. 64-11 must be amended to remove “Oil & Gas Storage*” and “Hazardous Substance Storage*” from Conditional Uses in the Africatown Overlay for all sites not currently permitted as conforming or Conditional Uses by the UDCv4 § Article 4, Use Regulations, Sec. 64-4-8 Above-Ground Oil Storage Tanks (p. 119) & UDCv4 § Article 4, Use Regulations, Sec. 64-4-9 Hazardous Substance Storage Tanks (p. 124).”

Written Comment 4/15:
“3/10) The Africatown Overlay doesn’t do enough to address lingering residential concerns with Industrial Blight.

Like the Village of Spring Hill Overlay, UDCv4 § Article 11, Africatown Overlay, Sec. 64-11 must be amended to clearly address the Intent and Purpose of the overlay, which also must include decreasing nuisance Industrial encroachment upon residential Africatown that too often robs residents of the full enjoyment of their property and community, simply to make it cheaper for non-residential developers to move into Africatown. Africatown deserves an Overlay that provides clear control of future non-residential development with respect to historic cohesion, its residential character, and its interest in heritage and eco-tourism destination. That control must include clarity on the many Residentially-zoned properties in the Africatown Overlay that are currently used for Industrial activity, in clear non-compliance with both the existing and proposed City of Mobile zoning code.”

Written Comment 5/15:
“4/10) The Africatown Overlay’s CPTED requirements curiously only apply in Africatown.

We have some doubt about Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED) efficacy and its ability to be measured over time for usefulness. However, if the City of Mobile believes CPTED is an effective crime-prevention strategy and not just a non-binding engineering design exercise for future non-residential developers and thus little more than fluff left over from the Africatown Neighborhood Plan consultants’ suggestions to the community, then CPTED should be applied consistently across the City of Mobile and not just in Africatown.”

Written Comment 6/15:
“5/10) The Africatown Overlay’s landscaping requirements are too weak.

Given the unsightliness of large, sparsely landscaped parking lots in the Africatown Overlay district, some of which are as large as some of the community’s historic neighborhood enclaves, UDC § Article 11, Africatown Overlay, Sec. 64-11 must be amended to not exempt Maritime and Industrial Districts from Parking Lot Tree Requirements for future developments, as is currently proposed as a continuation of policy from the existing zoning code.”

Written Comment 7/15:
“6/10) Exemptions from Riparian Buffer standards are overly permissive.

UDCv4 § Article 3, Development Standards, Section 64-3-10 Natural Resource Protection, C Riparian Buffers, 5 Standards for Riparian Buffer Application, (d) Water Dependent Maritime Uses (p.84) must be amended to require that any “Water Dependent Maritime Use” exemption be tailored as necessary on an applicant-by-applicant basis in order to apply as much of the Riparian Buffer standards as is possible to parts of shoreline that have no “Water Dependent Maritime Uses” on them but are part of a larger facility footprint. It is unacceptable that entire neighborhoods like Africatown could effectively have zero Riparian Buffering along its developed waterfronts due to this overly permissive exemption.”

Written Comment 8/15:
“7/10) The Africatown Overlay omits waterfront conservation consideration entirely.

UDC § Article 11, Africatown Overlay, Sec. 64-11 must be amended to include Riparian Buffer application to all Zoning Districts in the Africatown Overlay, including “Water Dependent Maritime Uses”, where exemption must be tailored as necessary on an applicant-by-applicant basis to apply as much of the Riparian Buffer standards to otherwise impacted but unutilized shoreline as possible. It is unacceptable that entire neighborhoods like Africatown could effectively have zero Riparian Buffering along its developed waterfronts due to this overly permissive exemption. The proposed Africatown Overlay must not ignore the opportunities afforded by potential heritage and eco tourism of its storied waterfronts when the City of Mobile is on record as otherwise supporting such efforts.”

Written Comment 9/15:
“8/10) The
proposed Coal Handling Operations Code is too consequential to include in the proposed UDC and must be handled in a separate ordinance adoption process.

If it cannot be amended per the our related recommended changes (8.1-8.4), the proposed UDCv4 § Article 4, Use Regulations, Sec. 64-4-6 Coal Handling Operations (p.116) should be removed from the proposed UDC in its entirety and a separate public hearing on the proposed new ordinance should be held instead as was the case during the Above Ground Oil Storage Tank ordinance adoption process.”

Written Comment 10/15:
“8.1/10)
The proposed Coal Handling Operations code retroactively changes Use Permit terms for and rewards one (very bad) Industrial developer.

The only facility this section could apply to behaved in a manner reasonable people could describe as deceptive and corrupt. That facility has already been issued a Conditional Use permit, and changing the terms of that permit through the proposed UDC legislative process may appear to reasonable people as an improper service to a single entity. And because retroactively benefiting one industrial developer isn’t what the Map For Mobile UDC process should be about, UDCv4 § Article 4, Use Regulations, Sec. 64-4-6 Coal Handling Operations code must be amended to delete Sec. 64-4-6, A, 2, (a) (p. 116) entirely.”

Written Comment 11/15:
“8.2/10)
The proposed Coal Handling Operations code’s perpetual permit to expand applies to and rewards one (very bad) Industrial developer and is capriciously permissive.

Again, the only facility this section could apply to behaved in a manner reasonable people could describe as deceptive and corrupt. That facility has already been issued a Conditional Use permit, and changing the terms of that permit through the proposed UDC legislative process may appear to reasonable people as an improper service to a single entity. And because retroactive perpetual use permits for singular entities is an extraordinary governmental power and must not reward bad behavior, UDCv4 § Article 4, Use Regulations, Sec. 64-4-6 Coal Handling Operations, A, 2, (b) & (c) (p.116) must be deleted in its entirety.”

Written Comment 12/15:
“8.3/10)
The proposed Coal Handling Operations code appears to permit development of Coal Handling Operations on legacy parcels without Council oversight.

The UDCv4 and Map for Mobile processes must not be used to permit Coal Handling Operations to propagate across the city without Conditional Use permitting processes for each and every facility, as might be interpreted as the intent of UDCv4 § Article 4, Use Regulations, Sec. 64-4-6 Coal Handling Operations, B, 1 (p.117), so that section must be deleted in its entirety or amended to clarify its intent to not grant use permission without Council and Planning oversight.”

Written Comment 13/15:
“8.4/10)
The proposed Coal Handling Operations Code does too little to protect neighboring properties from trespass and nuisance.

All new and existing Coal Handling Operations must store their coal indoors and move coal piles on site using only conveyor systems to prevent nuisance dust and debris from being blown or washed off-site, so UDCv4 § Article 4, Use Regulations, Sec. 64-4-6 Coal Handling Operations (p.116) must be amended to require that both new and existing Coal Handling Operations store their coal piles indoors and that Coal Handling Operations be forbidden to move coal piles in bulk by any mechanism other than a conveyor system.”

Written Comment 14/15:
“9/10) Above Ground Oil Storage Tanks don’t need to release noxious vapors into neighborhoods, yet the proposed code’s Design Standards for Above Ground Oil Storage Tanks don’t include nuisance vapor capture on new and re-developed tanks.

Above Ground Oil Storage Tanks release vapors from the activity of emptying and refilling tanks with oil product. These vapors, some of them heavier then air and all of them very disgusting in odor, migrate into the neighborhoods and homes of nearby residents, which causes in some cases severe loss of enjoyment of property in addition to public health impacts. Both newly developed and re-developed Above-Ground Oil Storage Tanks must be equipped with nuisance vapor capture systems to mitigate exposure onto neighboring properties, so UDCv4 § Article 4, Use Regulations, Sec. 64-4-8 C. Siting and Design Requirements (p. 122) must be amended to require these design standards for new and re-developed tanks.”

Written Comment 15/15:
“10/10) UDCv4 fails to meet many of the City of Mobile’s zoning code revision Metrics for its Fair Housing Goals and Priorities, as declared to the
US HUD in the City’s current Assessment of Fair Housing 2018-2023 (AFH) Report.

The AFH filed with US HUD in 2017 by the City of Mobile commits the city to specific zoning code changes so the city may “accommodate and encourage access to innovative affordable housing”, the stated purpose for the rCity of Mobile’s AFH Metrics in the report. By not following through, an opportunity to ensure our most vulnerable neighbors do not face extreme hardship in finding emergency shelter and affordable housing in our city during an economic crisis and global pandemic may be missed. As a federal grant recipient, the City must amend all Residential zone dimensional standards and the Use Table in UDCv4 § Article 2, Zoning Districts to meet the City’s Metrics for its Fair Housing Goals and Priorities as declared to HUD in the City’s current AFH report.”

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