I had a tough decision to make this evening: should I watch NCIS or the premiere of V (starring Morena Baccarin of Firefly fame)?
Well, instead of making the tough decision, I went to Dr. Richard Showers’ Huntsville City Council District One Town Meeting. The main topic of the meeting was the City’s proposed “Correctional Center Zoning”, which will be voted on this Thursday night at the City Council meeting. This issue doesn’t seem to have a good solution, so unfortunately the City Council must vote on the least bad solution – a real-life tough decision that weighs heavily on our elected officials.
Some background: in February 2009 the City received a letter from a Federal Bureau of Prisons contractor (described by Mayor Tommy Battle as a “litigious group”) asking for guidance on locating a “residential re-entry center” or “correctional transitional housing” in Huntsville. As of that date the clock stopped in a way (and started in another way). According to City Attorneys, the City is required to allow public or private (contracted) correctional facilities and can only deal with zoning that was in place as of February 2009 (clock stop). The City asked for and received two moratoriums in order to develop zoning ordinances for correctional facilities – but the deadline is December 23, 2009 (clock running). Notable quotes: City Planner Marie Bostick – “we didn’t go looking for this”; City Administrator Rex Reynolds – “we need a managed response”; Mayor Battle – “let’s control it”.
The City Council votes Thursday to approve or disapprove the Zoning Ordinance proposed by the Planning Department and approved by the Planning Commission. The Ordinance allows for development in large areas around the airport, close to the Toyota plant, and close to A&M in Chase (among other areas – see the maps at the link above). No one wants a correctional facility 500 feet from their backyard (NIMBY – or as the hip kids call it, “locally unwanted land use”). Councilman Will Culver announced tonight that he and Dr. Showers will both vote ‘No’ on the Ordinance.
If the Ordinance fails, it will take months to develop and approve another plan, during which time a correctional facility could be constructed pretty much anywhere in Huntsville. Keep in mind that the proposed plan has been in the works since February – and that the City tried very hard to minimize the impact on residents – and that the City must develop broad guidelines that can withstand a legal challenge.
So these are the bad choices: vote Yes to zoning rules that will restrict the unwanted development to limited industrial areas, knowing that some people in the community will be harmed financially (and that their safety will be at risk) - or vote No and potentially expose the City to an unplanned facility (basically hoping that the City can come up with a better plan before the Bureau of Prisons acts).
It’s a tough decision – but that’s why our Mayor and City Council make the big bucks… It’s also why elections matter.
Now let’s get into some meeting details and notes. There were more than a dozen City officials in attendance: Mayor Battle, Councilmen Showers and Culver, City Administrator Reynolds, Police Chief Henry Reyes, Fire Chief Mike Sublett, Public Works Director Terry Hatfield, Community Development Director Michelle Jordan, and Assistant Planning Director Marie Bostick.
There were about 80 people or so in the crowd, including about 20 students from A&M’s Department of Urban Planning. Stephanie Beecken of WAAY 31 reported on the meeting.
Public Works Director Hatfield said that he’s hired about 30 temps to help with curbside leaf pickup (it’s easier and better to mulch or compost your leaves). Chief Sublett said that the Fire Department has 16 stations and is building a new station in Greenbrier (and could use about five more). Chief Reyes said that 33 new cadets started at the Police Academy. Community Development Director Jordan said that there will be a public hearing on the HUD Five Year Consolidated Plan Update (I missed the time – be on the lookout).
Councilman Showers said that he has “concern” for those who “worked real hard and saved their money to buy in that area” and that people “didn’t move to Carter Gin to be impacted by this type of situation”.
Councilman Culver made a point of saying that the zoning was “not racially motivated” and that he would like to see the zoning “proportionally distributed” around the City. He noted that most of the available land was in his district near the airport, and that most of the residents in that area were white (he didn’t say white, but that’s what he said).
There were about 25 questions from the audience during the Q&A – bottom line – people don’t want it – other bottom line – “we can’t prohibit them” (Planner Lisa Aleddo). Another bottom line is that if you live in Madison County (or maybe even Madison) you don’t have the zoning protections – this only covers the City of Huntsville.
The meeting wrapped up about 9PM and the City Planners stayed to answer all questions (including mine). On the way out, I had the pleasure of speaking with Will Culver. He took the time to explain to me his decision to vote against the Ordinance and details of the issue, which I truly appreciate. From what I’ve seen, Culver is doing a great job as Councilman.