Why Should Africatown be a Safe Zone and How Do We Get There?
Zoning has been a hot-button issue for years in Africatown with most advocates clearly wanting Africatown’s future to be a Safe Zone and not a HazMat Zone. Sadly, the way the City of Mobile has failed to capture the spirit of residential concerns in its proposed Unified Development Code (UDC) is disappointing to many.
With its contributions to World Heritage just now becoming widely recognized and its vulnerable, low-income, and predominantly African-American population, its current development patterns warrant much scrutiny.
Africatown deserves surety that it will change from a HazMat Zone to become a Safe Zone in future decades.
MEJAC along with Africatown residents and stakeholders were yet again present to provide Public Comment about the UDC Version 6 (the February 2022 version) to the Mobile Planning Commission earlier this month on March, 10, 2022.
The Public Comment opportunities during City Council and Planning Commission deliberations of the UDC adoption process have proven the best opportunities to share zoning concerns from Africatown residents, stakeholders, and advocates who have been tragically left out of the loop with the City of Mobile concerning the development of their community, despite their having provided tens of thousands of words of Public Commentary previously in the process.
Amending the UDC’s Africatown Overlay will Clear the Air about Future Development in Africatown
At the March 10 Public Hearing, MEJAC introduced a Draft Amendment to the Africatown Overlay of UDCv6 (PDF) that would refine the language found in the Africatown Overlay section to refer not to “the existing development pattern of the community” but to the Africatown Neighborhood Plan instead, which in best practice should be updated regularly. The last revision was in 2015, well before The Clotilda was identified in 2019.
The Public Comment submitted by MEJAC President & Mobile NAACP ECJC Chair Ramsey Sprague, Africatown Heritage Preservation Foundation co-founder Joe Womack, Africatown residents Walter Moorer & Louise Moorer, and Carol Adams-Davis of the Sierra Club Mobile Bay Group can be viewed on the City of Mobile YouTube here, starting at the 6:30 mark:
You can read President Sprague’s full Public Comment at the end of this blog post.
None of the Public Comments submitted by MEJAC members were addressed by the Planning Commission at all, which was 100% intent on recommending the UDC for passage without any further amendment. The City Council will receive the UDC for full, legal consideration of adopting it as the new Chapter 64 of the Mobile Municipal Code, replacing the existing Chapter 64 – Zoning entirely.
MEJAC encourages all City of Mobile residents to participate in the raising of concerns about the UDC to their City Councilors!
On Tuesday March 29, the Mobile City Council announced a “Committee of the Whole” meeting to hear resident concerns about the UDC set for Tuesday, May 10, 2022 for some time after that day’s City Council meeting. They also announced the introduction of the UDC for legal consideration for Tuesday, May 17, 2022.
Since the public participation process began, MEJAC has been participating in the Map for Mobile closely and has followed its Unified Development Code (UDC) zoning code re-write process since at least the fall of 2017.
Since that time, MEJAC has captured our voluminous sentiments and those of impacted Mobile community members, including Africatown, about the UDC’s shortcomings and its successes in the following blog posts, webinars, and Public Comments*:
- March 2019 – The New City of Mobile Zoning Code: Kudos and Concerns (version 2 commentary)
- June 2020 – MEJAC’s UDC version 3 Commentary
- February 2021 – Webinar Series: De-Coding the City of Mobile’s proposed Unified Development Code (UDC)
- February 2021 – MEJAC’s UDC version 4 Public Comment
- May 2021 – More De-Coding the City of Mobile’s proposed Unified Development Code (UDC)
- October 2021 – MEJAC’s UDC Version 5 Public Comment
(*Released over 2018, what gets referred to as “Version 1” of the UDC never published the entire draft UDC text, so while MEJAC was monitoring what was being shared about the UDC at the time, MEJAC never formally submitted commentary.)
MEJAC President Ramsey Sprague submitted the following Public Comment verbally to the Planning Commission on March 10, 2022:
My name is Ramsey Sprague. I am President of the Mobile Environmental Justice Action Coalition, or MEJAC, as it’s been called since its founding by Africatown residents over eight years ago in partnership with regional advocates to address environmental justice concerns in and around Mobile.
I am also the Mobile NAACP Environmental and Climate Justice Committee Chair.
As y’all know, my agencies have been providing voluminous commentary to the Planning Department over the last 4 years about the UDC, and we’ve seen valuable progress on many of our concerns, but there are still many things that warrant Commission attention.
To address some of our biggest concerns with the shortcomings of the Africatown Overlay, we have drafted an Amendment to it. The amendment does several things:
1) Under Section B. 1., it would make explicit the interest in “the avoidance of further industrial encroachment and the elimination, over time, of those industrial activities that are incompatible with nearby residential neighborhoods.” This was commentary we provided about the Africatown Overlay’s Intent and Purpose that was never acknowledged by Planning.
2) Under Section B. 2.(c), instead of “accommodating the existing development pattern of the community” it would instead “implement the goals of the Africatown Neighborhood Plan”. We feel strongly that that most of the Africatown Neighborhood Plan is workable but that its FLUM is fundamentally flawed and that there is an immediate need for the City to command resources to augment the existing Plan with expertise in industrial land use cessation and de-escalation.
3) It would also amend the Chart of Permitted Uses for the Africatown Overlay to reject use categories that residents and stakeholders who have been reviewing the UDC for years now feel fit their immediate and long-term goals for Africatown of establishing a safety zone that would protect residentially zoned districts from further harm from incompatible uses by explicitly rejecting the continuation or expansion of 41 industrial or otherwise incompatible uses, as they are defined in the UDC. We understand that this version of the UDC would prevent most incompatible land uses from being established in the Africatown Overlay, but what is there today must also be explicitly addressed.
Among other missed opportunities we see are:
1) The Africatown Overlay district, 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 and recreation efforts in Africatown. The proposed “water dependent maritime use” exemption to all Riparian Buffer standards is too broad. It should be changed to only permit exemption at the site of use and not along thousands of feet of unutilized shoreline. 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.
2) We feel that there is an inherent difference between warehousing stuffed animals or barbed wire and warehousing hazardous materials. The current City Code Section 64-12 – Chart of Permitted Uses defines two forms of Warehousing – Heavy and Light, where Heavy includes Hazardous Materials storage and Light does not. The UDC does away with this distinction and decreases the public’s ability to know what is stored in warehouses that may be directly next door to them, as is the case in the Africatown community and elsewhere in the City. The UDC should re-define Warehousing to its previous use definitions in addition to overall warehouse size.
3) An entity within the City’s Planning Department should be tasked with publicly publishing all administrative letters of decision and other decisions stemming from administrative interpretation powers granted by the UDC. How else will the general public know if a staff decision should be appealed to the Board of Adjustment, if they are not the applicant or original inquirer?
4) In the UDC, the Director is tasked with revising the City of Mobile GIS for approved Rezoning Applications and Planned Developments, but direction should be provided to also disclose any specific Council-Imposed Permit Conditions on the GIS, as well as well as instruction for how an individual viewer may access information that may not appear but which is relevant to property inquiry in the City of Mobile. Additionally, general warranty of the GIS and all publicly-facing maps should be provided. Both property inquiry instruction and warranty within publicly-facing municipal GIS is standard in other Alabama cities like Montgomery. Navigating the City’s barriers to public information is very challenging and can be costly, especially to inexperienced entrepreneurs and neighborhood development advocates.
In conclusion, the pandemic has clearly complicated every aspect of life, including public participation around the UDC and Map for Mobile process. This should be cause for more careful examination of concerns that are still brought forth, but instead there’s a drive to simply get this done and over with. Environmental Justice advocates simply want this done right.
Thank you for your time and careful consideration of our agencies’ concerns.”