Overshadowing the mayor’s budget presentation tonight (see below) was the $4.25 million purchase of 15 acres of land adjacent to the West Homewood ballfields, an intent not fully disclosed or even discussed except that it the property will be open for redevelopment for city parks and the school board’s long talked about high school relocation. The property had been purchased by the Homewood Industrial Development Board in 1997 and leased to the Mason Co., which the mayor said relinquished its right to extend the lease and accepted the $4.25 million offer negotiated by the city attorney. The sale seems to end years of speculation about the school board’s plans for relocating the current high school, which is facing expanding enrollments from the lower grades. Rumors that the high school would be relocated to West Homewood park spiked last November when the council authorized the mayor to enter a negotiation with a bond company, Merchant Capital, concerning parks and school board needs.
And overshadowing that revelation by far tonight was a one-hour public forum on proposed limits to the height of single-family houses that was dominated by long-term residents opposed to oversized houses they said threatened the charm and integrity of Homewood’s established neighborhoods. Out of 17 speakers allowed 3 minutes each at the podium, several went over in prepared remarks that condemned towering houses and lamented a loss of architectural integrity and charm that attracted them to Homewood.
Several residents criticized the process whereby the original 25-foot height limit for houses on small lots–proposed by the zoning department in April and passed by the Planning Commission–was raised to 29 feet and then 32 feet in two successive meetings after builders complained. One builder and one resident spoke out against “over restricting” height for new construction, which would prevent newcomers from building in Homewood. The resident, a former candidate for city council in 2012, argued that the two last height restrictions proposed — 29 feet and 32 feet from threshold to rooftop–were not visually discernible and that aesthetics was the only reason given in most arguments for imposing height limits. Other speakers, including Twin Construction builder David Siegel and architect Joel Blackstock–both Homewood residents–argued against heights in excess of 29 feet, saying it afforded plenty of leeway to build large but attractive houses on small lots. Three residents asked for the matter to be tabled or postponed while a more thorough and thoughtful study was conducted on a direction for Homewood’s neighborhoods. A member of the city’s Historic Preservation Commission cited 275-300 county historical markers placed on Homewood houses, more than in any other municipality except Birmingham.
The changes were originally introduced to the Planning Commission in April by the city’s zoning staff as a way to answer growing complaints about the size of new houses on Homewood’s generally small lots.
- A reduction in the number of designated lot widths to create two categories: 1) Lots 55 feet wide and under and 2) Lots over 55 feet wide.
- A change in defining how height was measured, from averaging four sides of a house to measuring from front door threshold to rooftop.
- Setting a 25-foot height limit for houses on the smaller-width lots and a 35-foot limit for those on wider lots.
- Setting side setbacks of 5 feet and 9 feet on the smaller lot and 10 feet on both sides for larger lots.
- Removing a requirement to make second stories narrower, as a fire safety measure.
- Dropping a minimum living area for small lots.
Although the Planning Commission unanimously approved the recommendation, the council hesitated to ratify the changes in June after builders objected at a council public hearing. Council president Bruce Limbaugh called a public meeting with the commission in July, where the group reached a consensus to raise the original 25-foot restriction to 29 feet for smaller lots. At a Planning and Development committee later, the height was raised again to 32 feet for smaller lots and 36 feet for the larger.
Despite the protracted discussion and ratcheting up the original height restriction from 25 to 32 feet, several councilmen tonight defended the process, saying their intent was not to remove limits, but to impose them.
The item tonight was referred back to the Planning and Development Committee for discussion.
Members present: All- Michael Hallman, Britt Thames, Fred Hawkins, Vance Moody, Patrick McClusky, Walter Jones, Barry Smith, Alex Wyatt, Rich Laws, Peter Wright and council president Bruce Limbaugh. Also present was Mayor Scott McBrayer.
Staff present: Mike Kendrick, city attorney, Melody Salter, finance director and city clerk, J.J. Bischoff, mayor’s chief of staff, Greg Cobb and Vanessa McGrath, Building, Engineering and Zoning Department, and police and fire chiefs Ross and Bresnan.
Audience attendance: Full house to start
Tonight’s regular business will be posted on Tuesday, Aug. 30.
Click the image to link to the mayor’s proposed budget for the year beginning Oct. 1, 2016.