[The following summarizes the events of the Exceptional Foundation rezoning public hearing. The remainder of the council meeting will be posted separately.)
Whether it was the council’s secret will or a freaky procedural glitch, or both, the council on March 31 ended up postponing action on the controversial Exceptional Foundation expansion and rezoning case and scheduling further deliberations at an April 7 Planning and Development Committee meeting at 6:30 p.m.
The public hearing on whether to rezone to institutional (I-2) two houses at 1610 and 1612 Oxmoor Road brought a crowd of approximately 75 people, of which six spoke adamantly against the plan during the 90-minute hearing, and five spoke glowingly in favor of the Foundation. But when public comment was finally closed at 7:30 p.m.–and before a motion was made–councilman Michael Hallman announced he would abstain from any vote and asked the members to cast their votes against the measure. Knowing the abstention would block the needed “unanimous consent” to hold a vote on the first reading, the council went through the motion and dropped further balloting when Hallman made good on his promise to abstain. The next vote will follow a second reading to be held at the next council meeting, April 14.
However, several council members had already seized on some of the opponents’ concerns, and passage of the plan without any change didn’t appear certain.
Nor was this the only surprise of the evening. At 8:15 p.m., following another round of routine business, the council voted to go into a closed-door “executive session” to discuss impending litigation, topic not disclosed although the council’s 6-3 vote not to renew a West Homewood hotel license is being challenged in circuit court. The executive session lasted 30 minutes, when the council re-entered in order to adjourn.
Members present: All–Michael Hallman, Britt Thames, Fred Hawkins, Vance Moody, Patrick McClusky, Walter Jones, Jenifer Champ Wallis, Heather Reid, Richard Laws, Peter Wright and council president Bruce Limbaugh.
Absent: Mayor Scott McBrayer.
Staff present: City clerk Linda Cook, city attorney Mike Kendrick, Mayor’s chief of staff J.J. Bischoff.
Audience attendance: Approximately 80
Exceptional Foundation rezoning carried over: Exceptional Foundation Director Tricia Kirk appeared with architects Craig Rogers and Stephanie Brown, offering a brief history of the organization, its plan to expand, and appeal for the council to ratify the Planning Commission’s recommendation (7-1) to rezone two residential lots for that purpose. In a 90-minute public hearing, six of 11 speakers opposed the move out of concern for neighborhood preservation, traffic and aesthetics. Despite a plan to raze two houses and add traffic to an already stressed corridor scheduled for a major improvement study–opponents all prefaced their remarks with support for the Foundation’s mission and continued work in the community.
The History: The Foundation was started in 1993 at the Homewood rec center to offer organized social and educational experiences to special needs adults and children. The agency obtained a 501(c)(3) nonprofit designation, and built its current building in 1999, followed by an addition in 2006. The program now serves 120 clients from across Jefferson County.
The Proposal: Under the current plan, the Foundation would purchase two residential lots on Oxmoor Road, which would then be consolidated into one parcel and deeded to the city of Homewood in exchange for a long-term ground lease. The houses would be demolished to make way for the new building and parking area.
The Pitch: Ms. Kirk and the architect made several points to counter common arguments being developed against the expansion: 1) The expansion will open a 7,500 sf “youth center” to allow smaller and age-segregated classes, improving the quality of programs, not increasing enrollment; 2) The agency serves 120 clients of which more than a third arrive on public transportation and several more walk from home, not substantially increasing traffic; 3) The expansion is planned on the edge of a neighborhood, merely shifting its boundaries 120 feet to the west and not making a substantial change in its character; and 4) The Foundation offered to erect a 20-foot wide foliage buffer to screen the parking area and addition from neighborhood view.
Concept drawings showed a new 1-story addition with an entrance and drop-off facing west on a new one-way driveway from Oxmoor Road. [The architect, however, would not allow those drawings to be photographed for publication, saying the design may undergo change.] According to the plan, traffic entering the drive would then exit by circling through the rec center parking lot back out to Oxmoor via Bridge Lane. Shared access with the rec center is a key part of the plan, as is a shared use agreement for 16 new angled parking spots hastily signed by the park board in February. [See the Feb. 10 park board report.]
The Opposition: Opponents’ major concerns fell into the following categories:
- The plan represented an incursion into the clear boundaries of a residential neighborhood, running counter to the goals of the city’s master plan;
- Neighbors would be living across the street or in view of an asphalt parking lot and institutional brick edifice; “Heritage” trees would be taken down and replaced with a nondescript buffer strip;
- The new drive would turn the West Glenwood intersection from a T-intersection to a through-intersection; traffic on Oxmoor would stack up behind cars stopped to turn into the drive; residents didn’t believe the results of a traffic study showing no impact from the expansion, especially when the rec center opens this spring; traffic would soon use the drive as a short cut into the rec center parking lot;
- As a matter of principle, one critic said, the council should not use the EF’s expansion plan and offer to share 16 new parking spaces as a way to relieve the rec center’s parking problems.
One critic made a legal argument, vehemently shot down by city attorney Mike Kendrick. Resident Jay Bagwell said the agreement violated a section of the city’s zoning regulations that prohibits certain kinds of “conditional rezoning” in which the owner agrees to make a cash contribution to the city, for example, or dedicate the property for a public right-of-way or facility in exchange for a favorable vote. Bagwell said the agreement to convey the land into city hands and share parking with the city’s park board were examples of prohibited conditions, which Mr. Kendrick and a city zoning staff disputed. According to them, the only condition the city entered was to resurvey the residential lots into one parcel. The resurvey, they said, was necessary for the expansion, but separate from the rezoning, which wouldn’t take effect until after the houses were purchased.
The Defense: Five residents — including parents of special needs adults and the spouse of a Foundation employee–spoke in support of the agency’s mission. The Foundation, they said, was a blessing to the neighborhood, and an appropriate extension of services offered by Homewood parks and schools, and supported the community’s valued diversity.
The City Council’s response: Council members made clear they were concerned by potential traffic increase on Oxmoor and the unknown impact of the rec center opening. The rezoning decision, if made that night, would also precede a major traffic study of the entire corridor from Palisades to U.S. 31.
Mr. Moody and Mr. Wright both asked that special attention be paid to a planned buffer, since the building would be on higher ground than the surrounding neighborhood. Mr. Moody appeared to want more time to consider concerns raised, especially after the contentious rezoning of Samford University two years ago.
Mr. Jones and Mr. Thames asked if the proposed traffic flow around the rec center parking lot could be changed, either by reversing the direction, making the new drive two-way or with a turnaround, or some other solution.
Mr. Hallman said the rec center had already taken residential property from Manhattan Street and the rezoning would take two more houses from the neighborhood. He asked the council to turn down the rezoning, announcing his attention to abstain from any vote but not giving a reason.
The Decision: In a flurry of motions, Mr. Thames moved to approve the rezoning but was reminded that the measure–a zoning ordinance–required the “unanimous consent” of all present to be decided on a first reading. Mr. Thames then moved for unanimous consent, which was prevented by the Hallman abstention. With the deciding vote postponed to the next meeting, Mr. Moody moved to refer the matter for more discussion to a Planning and Development Committee meeting, which passed. That meeting, which is open to the public, was set for Monday, April 7, at 6:30 p.m.
The meeting was adjourned at approximately 8:45 p.m.