Planning Commission, May 2, 2017

Owners say they want to tear down three separate buildings and replace with a strip retail building. But the real meat of this case was a request to rezone for townhouses on Columbiana. Opposition from residents and the commission overwhelmed the townhouse plan.

Three properties with a controversial history recently were back in the public eye Tuesday, with a rezoning request on the Green Springs Highway Meat & Three property getting a unanimously unfavorable vote. Owner Fred Shunnarah and company wanted to divide the property, which extends to Columbiana Road in the rear, build a single retail strip on the Green Springs side and rezone the back half for townhouses facing Columbiana. He only got half his wish Tuesday.  Three years ago Columbiana residents were unhappy when the city allowed Shunnarah to clear the entire property of trees with no penalty, then hastily planted a row of small trees, which didn’t survive. Those issues came back to haunt the current case in a torrent of criticism, see the case below.

In the second controversy, builder Tim Coker won a surprising and quick approval to renovate and add a second story  to a dilapidated duplex on B. M. Montgomery Street. Just a few years earlier, Coker had fought resounding opposition

The duplex on the right was approved for second story apartments and an outdoor staircase. One Rosedale resident spoke in favor of the project.

to rezone adjacent property (pictured on the left, above) from residential to mixed use for intern housing to serve a new design studio. The council at the time passed the zoning 7-2 over the unfavorable recommendation of the Planning Commission (which had tied 3-3)  and against the strenuous objections of Rosedale residents attending a townhall forum before the vote.

Councilman Peter Wright and other officials picketed the Circle K property and advocated its boycott when the company leased ground for a giant digital billboard facing Lakeshore. Tonight the company was approved to nearly quadruple its service station on the Lakeshore corner.

Finally tonight, the Circle K (BP on Lakeshore) was center stage of picket lines two years ago when corporate headquarters leased ground for a giant digital billboard and without the knowledge of Homewood officials. The city later struck a private deal with the owner to move the structure to K-Mart. To prevent future surprises, the city went on to annex the Circle K property, which was in unincorporated Jefferson County, and several others along its border. Tonight, the convenience store company asked for a resurvey to enlarge its lot for a new store building nearly four times the size of the current one.

Also tonight was the retirement and final meeting of veteran Planning Commission member Mike Brandt, who is off the commission now after 20 years service. He is being replaced by a former member, John Krontiras, who was present to observe.

Members present: Billy Higginbotham, chair, Mike Brandt, vice chair, Jeffrey Foster, James Riddle, Brady Wilson, Fred Azbik, John Krontiras and Battalion Chief Nickolas Hill.

Absent: Fred Azbik and Mark Woods.

Staff present: Donna Bridges, board clerk, Fred Goodwin, planner, and Vanessa McGrath and Greg Cobb, building, engineering and zoning department.

Audience attendance: 42

*Rezoning cases must be approved by a vote of the city council, following a separate public hearing.

In two separate votes approved a parcel division but unanimously denied a request for rezoning commercial property for townhouses: One of the longest cases tonight was a request by Fred Shunnarah and others dba F.R.Z. LLC, to divide property at 819 Green Springs Highway in order to rezone the back half from the commercial Green Springs Urban Renewal District (GURD) to R-7, which would allow townhouses exclusively. The case had been carried over several times from the beginning of the year while owners and city staff research restrictive covenants, which came into play in tonight’s decision.

A row of 6-foot evergreens were planted to appease residents upset by the clear cutting of the Meat & Three property a couple of years ago. The trees have died.

Residents who spoke were unanimously against the rezoning. All cited their distrust of the plans after the Shunnarahs cleared the property of trees nearly to the edge of Columbiana Road (see link to case above). Under a private covenant and regulations of the GURD, the property along Columbiana must have a 30-foot vegetative, evergreen buffer and no access from Columbiana or Carr Avenue. If rezoned to residential, however, the buffer requirements would be changed, and access could be allowed.

One Columbiana resident recalled waking up to the sound of thetrees being bulldozed, and placing “many, many calls for assistance” to city officials, to no avail. The resident asked what assurances the commission could grant that the townhouses would be visually acceptable if the city couldn’t solve the problem of the cut trees or buffer.  “I also approached Mr. Shunnarah as a neighbor,” she said. “And I was told it was basically not his problem. The buffer was a sound barrier for the noise on Green Springs. We looked to the city for help. …No one helped me negotiate with the property owners.”

Ms. McGrath said there are no design review regulations in Homewood; zoning regulations can only show where streets and buildings will be located, the required setbacks, density, etc. As it turned out Mr. Shunnarah had not sketched out any plans for the townhouses anyway.

Rear of Shunnarah property. Owners have been clearing for a couple of years, to the chagrin of neighbors with a view of the commercial buildings.

Five other residents spoke in opposition, citing additional traffic, uncertainty about the development’s quality, and the visual impact of eliminating the tree buffer. One Columbiana Rd. resident, who is trying to sell his house, said the remaining trees “were completely inadequate” as a screen to the property and should be replaced regardless of the commission’s vote.  Another resident, living on Acton Ave., cited the same concerns, adding that the Shunnarahs had already demonstrated their lack of interest in the neighborhood by clearing the trees.

Mr. Shunnarah and friend speak

Mr. Shunnarah didn’t help his case by mentioning a threat of putting storage buildings in the back of the property if he wasn’t permitted to build the townhouses. (Storage buildings aren’t allowed in the GURD, it was later pointed out). A friend and builder speaking for Mr. Shunnarah told the audience the family’s property, which includes the post office and several retail buildings and former satellite courthouse building, had recently received a facelift and was well maintained. A gas station had been removed and a restaurant built in its place, which is now the popular Shrimp Basket. He said residential zoning (facing Columbiana) would be an improvement to neighbors over a “45-foot” commercial building, although he didn’t specify the height of the townhouses. (Ms. McGrath later said the GURD height restrictions didn’t allow 45 feet. She reminded him that without rezoning, a buffer must also be in place.)

The vote and a parting shot:

Before the vote, the first resident returned to the podium to add that she too distrusted the property owners’ intentions after the land clearing.

“This is a big deal and I plan to make this a bigger deal,” she said.

That said, Mr. Brandt quizzed Mr. Shunnarah briefly on his intentions for the property if it could not be rezoned. Mr. Shunnarah said without the rezoning, he wouldn’t need the lot division.

  • For the request to subdivide, subject to rezoning, the vote was unanimously in favor, with one abstention.
  • To recommend rezoning, the vote was unanimously opposed, with one abstention. The council can still hear the case if, if the applicant wishes.

Abstaining: John Krontiras abstained on his first night on the commission.

The newly configured BP station will be nearly four times the size of the current building of 12,000 square feet, and have one additional pump.

Approved redrawing the Circle K (BP gas station) boundaries to accommodate a large facility expansion on Lakeshore: Applicant MDM Services requested permission to purchase a strip of land from adjacent property to expand the lot and reconfigure the BP Station at 1250 Columbiana Road and 1 West Lakeshore Drive. That request was granted with few questions except jokes about the height of the signs–The Circle K was the site of one of the city’s greatest political upheavals when, unknown to city officials, an outdoor advertiser leased Circle K land to erect a whopping digital billboard. Circle K, then in unincorporated Jefferson County, was under the county’s lax zoning regulations, which allowed such a sign as close as 300 feet to  neighboring residences. The advertiser, who with city help relocated his sign behind K-Mart, had purchased and taken down several conventional highway billboards under the county’s permitting rules in order to put up the new structure. Homewood changed its own sign and GURD ordinances to allow the relocation. The following year the city had the state legislature annex Circle K and several other Jeffco properties into city limits to prevent other sign or development disasters.

From May 2014 – A concept sketch of rebuilt duplex on B. M. Montgomery Street in Rosedale, rezoned June 9 from residential to mixed use. The rezone from residential to Mixed Use caused a furor. Tonight’s vote to enlarge a matching duplex next door sailed through with no opposition.

Allowed a new development plan for a bigger building on B. M. Montgomery Street:  Tim Coker of Coker Holdings had one supporter and no opposition to his request to build a second story of apartments atop a duplex at 2756 B.M. Montgomery Street. The requested amended development plan allows the expansion, which includes an outdoor stair to the top floor.

Carried over a hotly disputed bid to rezone a small business building next to Mayfair Circle: Property owner John Page didn’t divulge who his new tenant might be, but requested a zone “up” from C-1, restricted to office uses, to the broader C-2, Neighborhood Shopping, a classification that allows everything from gas stations to carwashes to restaurants. Mr. Page gave his word he had no such plans for the 1,385 square foot building and was restricted by his tiny lot, where he shared 5-6 parking places with neighboring State Farm. But as several residents pointed out, they didn’t want any retail within 4 feet of their backyards and didn’t trust the property not to be combined later with the State Farm building for a larger commercial development.

Objections from five Mayfair residents covered traffic, noise, lack of privacy, sinking property values, and setting a bad precedent for more commercial in an already congested area. One resident said offices operated M-F, 9-5 while retailers tended to stay open later and on weekends. Another resident said the property owner (not the present owner) had allowed a tree to fall and damage a privacy fence, which she had paid to clean up. She had also paid to plant her own buffer to shield her back yard from the business and install drains to handle runoff from Oxmoor Road and the subject property. She objected to any heavier use of the business property, which is currently vacant.

The property is not contiguous to any other C-2, comprising an undesirable “spot zoning” if passed, according to Ms. McGrath. Yet, despite the problems and opposition of the Mayfair subdivision and two other residents, the commission chair offered the owner a compromise: The commission would re-hear the case next month at no extra fee if the owner and residents could agree on conditions to place on the C-2 rezoning. Conditions could exclude certain types of uses, hours of operation, lighting, etc. A conditional rezone doesn’t revert back to the original classification, but does retain the conditions indefinitely, Ms. McGrath said.

At that, the Mayfair homeowners president stood up and asked if the commission had read the letters of opposition and listened to the unanimous opposition to any rezoning, remarks which Mr. Higginbotham cut off and called out of order. The public portion of the meeting was over, he said, and the commission voted to carry over the hearing to June.

The proposed rezone at 1743 Oxmoor applies to the small building on the right, which abuts the Mayfair Circle subdivision. Residents didn’t want more retail, and were skeptical the adjacent State Farm property could be combined for an even larger, less desirable, commercial development in the future.


Two new school board members appointed, April 24, 2017

Erin Stephenson

The City Council this week broke with tradition and replaced two Homewood school board members seeking a second term with new members in wards 1 and 3. Out after just one term is Chris Hawkins, replaced with Justin Russell. In ward 3, Nancy Ferren lost her reappointment bid to Erin Stephenson, the daughter of  city attorney Mike Kendrick– a relationship that drew a couple of abstentions in Monday’s vote.

Justin Russell

Monday’s action significantly changed the face of the five-member board, which is grappling with explosive growth of enrollment in five current school buildings while still logging top spots on national public school rankings. The system has been alloted $55 million of a $110 million city bond issue to spend on new or expanded facilities.

A demographer hired on behalf of the school system Monday will go to work immediately to help decide what direction those decisions should lead.

Click on the links below to read the resumes submitted by new board members.

Justin Russell_Ward-1

Erin Stephenson_Ward-3

City Council work session, project management selection, April 10, 2017

Members present: All

Superintendent Bill Cleveland and school board member Nancy Ferren greet councilman Patrick McClusky before the meeting. The school board will start from scratch in hiring a program management firm, according to tonight’s action. Harbert will handle parks and police. Park board chairman Chris Meeks is at the right.

In a decision that seemed effortless if not prearranged, the council tonight moved to select B. L. Harbert as construction manager on the new police facility and an ambitious ballpark expansion, both in West Homewood. A few minutes before that vote those projects had been severed from the school system’s even more important plan to expand school facilities to accommodate growing enrollment.

The Board of Education will start the selection process from scratch with a new request for proposals aimed at finding a qualified program and pre-construction manager and–with permission of the council–a demographer.

To a full council–and in contrast to the confusion and conflict that marked last week’s special meeting–the council cordially accepted a plan by Superintendent Bill Cleveland to start the hiring process from scratch and including a demographer “if allowed” and with full, public participation of the whole 5-member school board. The $55 million allotted for schools use from the $110 million bond issue, will be administered through the council’s Finance Committee, while the substance of the project will belong solely to the schools.

Mayor McBrayer on April 3 made a case for partitioning the school system project from city and parks facilities and recommending the job go to Hoar Program Management. The school system this week chose to start the selection process from scratch, and in public. The mayor was not present.

Cleveland said the board had already drafted a new request document, which was being reviewed by the board attorney. The request is more specific to schools than the previous RFP, he said. That RFP, issued as it was from the privately operating “task force” of schools, council and a park board officials, drew five responses, narrowed to three semi-finalists, that were seemingly difficult if not impossible to compare on costs or other merits. The mayor last week had complicated the process by recommending the schools project be handled separately by Hoar Program Management, against the task force recommendation of Harbert International. Meanwhile, four of the six council members not seated on the task force objected to being asked to vote after they had been  barred from the private interview and discussion process. The matter was carried over due to indecision.

Cleveland explained the board’s request document was more of an RFQ (a request for qualifications), so the board may question each company specifically on its school system credentials. The selected firm would program, or do the logistical front end work, on the project, leading in to the pre-construction phase, he said. The firm would handle the bidding process for actual construction, he said. The deadline for responses is April 27 at 3:30 p.m., with a May 1 deadline for showing a contract to the council.

Cleveland also asked if the schools could go ahead and select the demographer, in order to get to work, or, if the council preferred, it could select a demographer on behalf of the BOE.


Answering questions, the schools chief said the selected firm would work with the ideas coming out of the board’s parent engagement teams. Mr. Wyatt and others said they would give a green light immediately on a request to hire the demographer. School board member Nancy Ferren explained they offered to let the council choose in order to reduce any (further) appearance of fragmentation.

Parks and Police take Harbert

With the school question settled, the council then voted on the single agenda item–to authorize the mayor to hire B.L. Harbert for construction management for the parks and police. Both the police chief and public services superintendent Berkley Squires had already selected architects (Davis Architecture for the parks and CMH Architects, Inc. for the Public Services Building/Jail, which were to be voted on in the regular council meeting to follow. Davis Architecture also has done some work for the park board gratis, including drawings for a proposed entrance monument at Central Park, called the “Gateway Project,” for which the park board requested–but was denied by the mayor–$200,000. Neither those drawings nor ones submitted by Chuck Kelly have been made public.)

The selection of Harbert came as no surprise as the firm had handled the parks’ new Recreation Center and provided the initial land study at no cost to the board of education–work that seemed due to be paid through the task force’s RFP process. However, the recommendation to select Harbert for the entire parks, police and schools project came apart publicly last week with a host of complaints from disenfranchised council members, disagreement between the mayor and task force, and conflict within the task force itself over how to compare bidders. A letter from bidder Hoar Program Management chastising the task force for irregularities in the process, including lack of openness, seemed to be the final blow.

Members of the HPM team were present for the vote tonight however.

Board of Zoning Adjustments, April 6, 2017

Bakery case from from the Huntsville Mason Dixon Bakery/Bistro. A second location was to be in Homewood’s Edgewood Station development, but space may be too tight.

Everyone sympathized with restaurant owner Ashley Ramirez after the board denied the Edgewood Station a variance needed for her specialty bakery. The Homewood location was to be the second for the husband-and-wife team, who opened the first Mason Dixon Bakery/Bistro in Huntsville. Unfortunately, not enough members were swayed by financial arguments that the only way to make enough money to pay the rent was to have a pre-fab walk-in cooler placed outside the building. Ms. Ramirez said her investment was lost; Possibly the development will make needed changes, or they will find another nearby location.

Members present: Matt Foley, Lauren Gwaltney, chair, Ty Cole, Brian Jarmon, and Jeffrey Foster (S), vice chair.

Members absent: Stuart Roberts (S), Beverly LeBoeuf, and Battalion Chief Nickolas Hill.

Staff present: Greg Cobb and Vanessa McGrath of the Building, Engineering and Zoning Department; Planning and zoning clerk Donna Bridges.

Audience attendance: 17

*Note on procedure: By state law, zoning variances granted by the 5-member board require a super majority of 4 members voting in the affirmative. To keep business moving in case of absences, the law also allows two supernumerary members (S) to sit in and vote if needed. Variances expire in 180 days if a building permit isn’t obtained.

Preserving the tree visible in the back is the reason for a setback variance on Woodland.

Approved a left setback variance for a garden shed on Woodland:  The owner at 305 Woodland Drive originally asked for two 2.6-foot setback variances on the rear and left side for an accessory structure to sit close to the property line in order to preserve a large tree in the back yard. Supporting the variance to preserve what he called one of the city’s “most beautiful trees,” was left-side neighbor John Kappes. In discussion, the owner was persuaded by a board member to shift the shed forward so that only a side variance was needed, which was eventually granted, but not without questions. Mr. Cole pointed out that the house was a rebuild after a complete tear down of the former house–if starting from scratch, he asked, why wasn’t the the accessory structure planned within the setbacks? The homeowner said he wanted to preserve as much yard as possible (after the house) and also save the tree. Again, a concern was raised for placing the shed so close to an alley running across the back property. The owner accepted the advice to shift the building forward, and the the board approved the reduced variance.

1615 Lakewood Drive

Approved a 5-foot variance for a new carport on Lakewood: The homeowners plan to build a carport at 1605 Lakewood Drive because the existing carport isn’t big enough. The original request for a 6 foot variance on the left side was reduced by 1 foot, and granted.

The plan to remodel 808 Wingate Circle and leave a carport and garage on the property line is being reconsidered to keep the side setback clear.

Carried over a case for substantial setback variances for a new carport on Wingate Circle:  The architect for the homeowners at 808 Wingate Circle agreed to carry over his request and consider moving a planned new carport to a different location and avoid building so far into setbacks. The existing carport and garage are already occupying the setback practically on the left property line, with the cinder block garage directly behind the aluminum carport. The plan was to tear down the carport and rebuild in the same location but connected to the corner of the house (pictured), with new siding and a pitched roof added to the garage. That plan would require variances to build 9.5-feet into the left building setback and 12.4-feet into the rear setback. The architect said he wanted to leave the carport at the edge of the property to create more open yard space.

808 Wingate Circle, what’s left of it

The architect offered to leave the garage detached, which reduces the setback requirements from 10 feet, as for a house, to 5 feet for an accessory structure, while leaving the buildings unchanged. However, Mr. Cole suggested moving the structures to the rear and leaving it connected. Such a move would retain the regulation 10-foot side setbacks. The architect, who needed time to consider the change with the owners, asked for a postponement and the case was carried over to May.

The existing deck would be converted to a screened-in porch to the second story.

Approved a right setback variance for a screened porch on Ridge: The homeowners at 126 Ridge Road want to convert a ground floor deck into a two-story screened porch and get rid of two nonfunctioning dormer windows on the second floor that leak. The deck is already built into the setback by 1.5 feet, so they asked that the variance be continued. The request was granted on condition that railings wouldn’t be built outside the current deck line and that the porch would not be permanently enclosed.

805 Wingate Circle

Approved a left building setback variance for a porch and door cover on Wingate:  Twin Construction is converting a deck at the rear of 805 Wingate Circle into a screened in porch, and roofing a brick stoop on a side door to protect it from the sun. With the proffer that neither the porch nor the roofed stoop would be enclosed, the variances of 2.3  feet for the stoop and 6 feet for the porch were granted.

Carried over a request for a substantial sign height, width and area variance at Hatfield Auto Parts & Service: 190 Oxmoor Road; Trent Hatfield requesting. 25 feet height variance, 16 square foot area variance and 4-foot width variance.

330 Kenilworth Drive

Allowed a building setback variance to remain for an addition on Kenilworth: The homeowner’s exhaustive argument in favor of a 3.7-foot right side variance at 330 Kenilworth Drive was granted with little questioning. The owner said he had been granted a 2.7 foot variance in 2004 but was unable to execute it.  Since that time, setback regulations for his lot size have been increased by one foot, and likewise his variance request. He listed as hardships a floodplain crossing the property and a joint driveway that couldn’t be changed to gain space. He said the finished addition would add only 52 square feet to the house, which he said was the smallest house on the largest lot on Kenilworth. The board, which was waiting to hear a much more ambitious plan to follow the presentation, had few questions, and granted the variance.

The proposed Mason-Dixon bakery at the Edgewood Station development may have to find a new home after BZA members denied a rear variance for an a pre-fab walk in cooler.

Rejected a rear setback variance for a free-standing walk-in cooler on an Oxmoor Road retail development: An architect and contractor for the proposed second location of a Mason-Dixon Bakery planned in the Edgewood Station development at Suite 111, 1017 Oxmoor Road, offered only a financial  justification for placing a 12′ X 8′  walk-in cooler in the back of the development. Architect Erik Hendon repeatedly explained the hardship in financial terms, saying the business needed more interior space for sufficient customer seating to pay the rent. The board can’t use a financial argument to justify granting a zoning variance.

Picture of the bakery/bistro from the Huntsville location.

This was to be the second such specialty bakery owned by the husband-and-wife team; the first is in Huntsville. In questioning the plan, the board noted the extremely tight space behind the building, which is a converted auto repair shop (the bakery was to occupy the former office space). Ms. McGrath explained that Dawson church had built its parking deck onto the public alley behind the development, which the city corrected by vacating the alley and transferring the property to the church. Ms. Gwaltney said traffic driving into the deck would pass dangerously close to the cooler and Mr. Cole said he was concerned the structure would be “junking-up” the back of the property. The architect and contractor suggested various ways to shield the cooler from traffic or fence it in, and the business co-owner Ashley Ramirez said the cooler was the smallest she could work with. There was no flexibility in rearranging the interior because of the restrooms, oven and vented hood, and having a kitchen capacity to handle at least 9 employees, she said.

In moving to approve, there was a long delay before the motion was seconded. At roll call, the vote failed 3-2 in favor: A variance requires at least four of the members voting yes.

Voting no: Ty Cole and Matt Foley

Planning Commission, April 4, 2017

Rear of the “Meat and Three” property. Owners have been clearing the back for a couple of years with plans to divide the property, sell the rear and redevelop the section fronting Green Springs.

Two large cases were carried over once again. Development is picking up in the Green Springs area, with a proposal to partition and redevelop the Meat & Three property waiting in the wings, and the Buddy Wade building getting a retail tenant, once rezoned.

Members present: Billy Higginbotham, chair, Jeffrey Foster, James Riddle, Brady Wilson, Fred Azbik, and Battalion Chief Nickolas Hill.

Absent: Mike Brandt, vice chair, Britt Thames, and Mark Woods.

Staff present: Donna Bridges, board clerk, Fred Goodwin, planner, and Vanessa McGrath and Greg Cobb, building, engineering and zoning department.

Audience attendance: 21

Minutes: unknown

Carried over: Two big cases slated tonight after prior postponements were carried over again to May, including 1) Two parcels involved in a 6-lot subdivision on hilltop property overlooking Berry Road, called Abbey Lane; and 2) A proposed division and development of commercial property (Meat & Three, etc., property) between Green Springs Highway and Columbiana Road.

Buddy Wade Building on Palisades and Columbiana.

Recommended rezoning property on Palisades from office to retail: Over the objections of one neighbor, the commission agreed to recommend rezoning the Buddy Wade State Farm property–a house at 285 Palisades Boulevard converted to an insurance office–from C-1 Office Building District to GURD, Green Springs Renewal District. The original request was to rezone to C-2, Neighborhood Shopping District to allow a 5-station hair salon. It was unclear why the applicant preferred the more stringent GURD zoning. Any rezoning is subject to City Council approval after a final public hearing.

The right side of the townhouse development on Columbiana is being built. Tonight complaints were addressed before approving the final plat on the left side.


Approved final plat pending a list of contingencies for a subdivision addition at 818-822 Columbiana RoadThe left side neighbor presented a list of concerns and demands to the developer of a 10-unit townhouse development at 818-822 Columbiana Road. The first half of the development is underway on the right side, with six units (shown). Final plat for four additional units planed on the left side were being decided tonight. 

The neighbor complained of ground erosion after trees were cut, that her gravel driveway had been damaged during the clearing and grading process, that she foresaw parking problems on her and her neighbors’ property because of inadequate parking in the development; and that a 36-inch retaining wall was insufficient to halt water draining off the development.

She also asked that the rear of the townhouses facing her property be uniformly fenced and landscaped for buffer and privacy.

The townhouses will look something like this.

In response, the developer agreed to investigate the driveway claims, but pointed out the development had six more parking spaces than the two spaces per unit required by law. He proffered the requested rear fencing, adding that the fence, being only 10 feet from the rear of the building, didn’t leave enough room for landscaping. However, he said a retaining wall was planned later in construction.

In questioning, Mr. Riddle said something should be done to prevent erosion from a drain pipe outlet on the property, and suggested riprap. The developer said the ditch would be sodded, which should be sufficient for the low velocity of flow.

The vote of approval was further contingent on the City Council accepting the street as public; a $10,000+ performance bond for the street finishing; and that the covenants and restrictions were submitted to the city.

Concept for three houses at 169 Lucerne. The variances for three undersized lots were rejected.

Divided a large residential property on Lucerne Boulevard into two smaller lots:  The curious case of 169 Lucerne Boulevard has been heard twice in the BZA in February and March, each time being rejected after drawing lots of neighborhood opposition. The original request was to divide the large parcel, on which there is one house, into three smaller and odd-shaped lots that fit together like puzzle pieces. The BZA kicked back the request based in part on the irregularity of the lot shapes and a poor presentation by the builder/prospective owner. On the second visit, the developer proposed three equally sized and shaped lots. Neighbors, however, voiced persuasive objections about the small lot sizes and concerns about building over storm and sanitary sewer lines than ran across the property.

The left lot is larger to compensate for the storm and sewer line bisecting it. The house on this lot would be situated to the right of the utility easements and not require any setback variances.

In this visit, the developer has decided to divide the parcel into only two sections, which result in two lots meeting the city’s size and average width  regulations and which will need no variances when built. There was one speaker tonight from 321 Lucerne, although others were in attendance. The speaker urged the commission to protect the property from any development that would harm the land or utilities.

Before the vote of approval, the developer agreed the house would be built within setback and other zoning regulations, needing no variances from the BZA.

City Council special meeting, bond issue spending procedures reconsidered, April 3, 2017

Members present:  All

Mayor McBrayer makes a case for partitioning the school system project from city and parks and giving the job to Hoar Program Management. Walter Jones, foreground, eventually agrees to consider the projects separately, although savings will be lost, he says.

Secrecy was just one of the problems plaguing the city’s $110 bond issue thus far, it was learned tonight. Inexperience was the other. A special session tonight that was expected to yield a vote on whether to hire B. L. Harbert International (likely) or Hoar Program Management (possible) for $110 million in public works instead yielded much soul searching and 90 minutes of debate over how to compare cost and other merits of the bidding firms.

The task force, made up of some council, school board and park board officials, has been meeting privately since December to choose a project manager for schools, parks and police facilities construction. The funds must be committed by December 2019.

The vote was carried over to Monday, April 10, at 5:30 p.m., to give the 6 council members not included on the task force time to understand the projects and competing bids. That became an issue after the mayor recommended separating the schools portion of the project from the rest and recommending Hoar Project Management, against the task force’s earlier recommendation. In the discussion  that followed, it became evident that few of the 5 council task force members had a firm grasp of the financial or practical matters at hand. The mayor cited confusing and overwhelming amount of information to consider for the overall project, the school system’s apparent preference for HPM, and an objectionable 70/30 split of savings offered by Harbert. The split had been negotiated by Harbert and Kendrick. In addition, the mayor alluded to Hoar Program Management’s letter to the full council claiming bias and irregularities in how the bids were handled.

Link to a bid comparison and chart posted earlier today and verified by tonight’s proceedings.

Of the 6 excluded council members, Andrew Wolverton (Ward 2) objected first, saying he wasn’t informed enough to cast a vote. “I can’t understand what transpired,” he said of the task force deliberations. “It’s hard to follow the rabbit trails.” Mike Higginbotham (Ward 2) also cited frustration, saying he had several financial questions for the task force but realized they couldn’t be answered. In turn Barry Smith and Jennifer Andress expressed concern that task force members had not communicated over the past three months. Both said they had no doubts about the firms’ abilities, but had not been kept informed, as promised in December.

In contrast, Patrick McClusky (Ward 3) and Andy Gwaltney (Ward 1) said they had taken personal initiative to learn about the proceedings from their ward mates (Walter Jones and Britt Thames respectively). Asked after the meeting if he shared any of his information, Gwaltney said his job wasn’t to keep tabs on or educate the other council members. “My responsibility is to my ward constituents,” he said.

Adding to the frustration was a letter by HPM’s Mike Lanier alluding to having his offer leaked to competitor Harbert before the bids were received, and for having two follow-up calls from Supt. Cleveland about amending the bid, first with Mr. Limbaugh and then with Alex Wyatt. In the first, the Superintendent asked for a price to handle the schools-only part of the project. HPM provided those figures. In the second, Lanier was asked for a price to provide up-front project management, then hand off the construction management–considered the real meat of the work — to the other firm to execute. It was this second call that prompted Lanier’s letter, to the embarrassment of the schools superintendent. Mr. Jones said he was offended by the letter as well.

Mr. Lanier, who was present tonight, repeatedly explained his stance to the council. He defined the terms Project Management and Construction Management for the council. He was not averse to bidding on the schools project, he said, but was not interested in doing project management divorced from construction management.

When the conversation cycled back to the mayor’s recommendation, and with emotion running high, it was decided to postpone any decision for another week. There being no further business, the meeting was adjourned at approximately 6:30 p.m.

City Council management award preview, $110M project, April 3, 2017

Harbert staffers pictured at last year’s chili cookoff benefiting Homewood’s Exceptional Foundation. The firm’s bid boasted its community involvement and two years’ unpaid preliminary work on the schools and parks projects. A competing firm, HPM, accused the city of sharing its bid with Harbert beforehand, saying it wasn’t surprised given the show of favoritism to Harbert from some task force members.

After two years’ work behind closed doors, the governing bodies of Homewood, its school system and park board will come into the open this evening to select a management company overseeing a $110 million spending package on school, police and park facilities.

Only in the last four months has the process been quasi-visible as a task force  selected by council president Bruce Limbaugh issued a request for Pre-Construction Management proposals and winnowed the original five bidders to three:  Harbert International, HPM (Hoar Project Management), and Robins & Morton. After some protest, Mr. Limbaugh’s task force, which was structured apparently to skirt state open meeting and records laws, agreed to open some meetings to the public while reserving the option to keep selected conversations private. Mr. Limbaugh exercised that option for B. L. Harbert on March 2 by dismissing the few public spectators — including a councilmember not seated on the task force–while a Harbert rep. disclosed private information.

Finally, in a gesture of renewed openness, Limbaugh on March 20 agreed to allow the full council to vote on whether to take Harbert’s offer, while HPM lobbied hard for an unbiased hearing. See HPM’s letter here.

See the resulting backlash to the months of shutting out the majority of councilmembers.


Screen shot from an Excel chart, linked above (chart and analysis contributed to HAL; based on information made public)

 Comparisons and caveats:

Most of the bidding firms have strong reputations in school and other institutional projects. HPM recently handled a Vestavia HIlls school project.

Only Hoar Project Management and Harbert provided full prices for comparison. (The city’s request in the RFP is for Pre-construction Management only, although Harbert voluntarily supplied total costs and HPM supplied additional cost breakdowns at the task force request. See the HPM letter, linked above. It isn’t known if the other companies were also asked to submit follow-up figures.)

While Harbert puts most of its costs on the construction side of the project, HPM places its costs on the front end planning, pre-construction side. The difference between Harbert’s pre-construction number ($585K) vs the other 2 finalists HPM ($2.182 million) and RM ($2.853 million) must be a vastly different approach in management style for this type of professional service because the timelines, if provided, for all of the projects are very similar.

Hoar – $2.6 million
Hoar has extensive K-12 and municipal projects–70 in fact–under its belt. They have worked with several neighboring governments, including Vestavia, Pelham, and Jefferson County BOE. Hoar estimates the total preconstruction costs to come in at $2.232 million and the total construction costs to come in at $2.56. With most of the work being done on the front end: analyzing the needs, including demography; evaluating and helping chose qualified contractors through the RFP process, and then light oversight on the back end.

Harbert – $4.5 million
The proposal lists numerous parks, organizations, but only 2 public schools or municipalities outside of Homewood in their references section. The total is $585K for pre-construction and that includes the optional services (demography and the three elementary schools life cycle analysis). There was an emphasis during the proposal meeting from the task force about demography services, so for this analysis, it will be included and not optional. Harbert also outlines the cost for fees, which is good to know going in and has a safety manager listed, which when dealing with schools and public facilities is of utmost importance.

Robbins & Morton – $2.9 million (pre-construction only)


Volkert – $4.1 million (based on Volkert’s bid, stated as a percentage, and assumed to include total costs, not just pre-construction.)

Cumming-CPM – $2.8 million (pre-construction only)

But why?

The entire project–from the clandestine preliminaries by Harbert and city leaders, to the surprise tax and bond vote in October, the RFP and exclusion of new council members from interviewing the bidders — arouses concerns about what information is being hidden, and why.

  • For one, even though some past council members have begrudged the schools’ designated penny tax, the schools enjoy nearly universal support from Homewood residents and voters. Why hide the process from them and sow such distrust?
  • For another, all the final firms bidding for the management project are big names in the field and most have satisfactory credentials for the job (HPM and Volkert have the most school construction experience, but only HPM made it to the final round.) What has the city gained from the protracted RFP process?
  • Finally, project management is a professional service and not subject to bid laws. Selection is really the prerogative of the mayor, anyway, and Harbert, whose involvement dated back two years, was the obvious choice. Why bother with a task force and RFP, especially when time is of the essence?

From a plan by B. L. Harbert, which worked with Homewood for two years on a comprehensive expansion and relocation of school and park facilities. The city purchased the land in August for $4.25 million.

Whatever the outcome of the school/park expansion years from now, it’s fair to say the process didn’t benefit from secrecy either from a practical or principles standpoint. Could openness and adopting (and following) written procedures have prevented the negative buzz about transparency and lack of trust? With projects at the magnitude of $110 million taking us into future years, should the city consider full-time management staff or continue relying on the decision-making abilities of part-time and volunteer elected officials?

Selected pages from four of five bidders; HPM original bid not included:  HARBERT; Robins & MortonHPM letter; Cumming-CPM; Volkert